First 15 pages: (c) Isvari Mohan, 2014
The easiest thing about war is killing people. Anyone who tells you differently hasn’t been a good soldier. A real soldier. Or maybe they were and then came out and got morals. All I’m saying is they definitely aren’t soldiers now.
The hard part of war is not getting killed yourself. Your heart can be beating and you can be breathing and the war might still have killed you. That’s what you watch out for.
August of 2030, the day rose on North and South Mikra in much the same way as it always did, with the blood-red sun boiling the water, laughing at the dry rooftops, and the crocodiles in the Rah River stalking their prey on both sides of the border.
I went back to work that day.
Another fact about war: it’s addictive. It lures you with a tantalizing grip, as if it can teach you a little more about life. Maybe it was true. More likely, it was not. I sat contemplating these things on a rock by the Rah, the river tumbling by, my amnesia leaving my mind a complete blank. I was peaceful, serene, and one with the calm and the blazing sun.
Then a bomb exploded.
It tore the entire slab I’d been sitting on, red hot fire leaving only a small wicked shard behind as a memento. A leg of a bull that had wandered near to it lay smoldering in the grass. The farmer leading him was completely gone, a fluff of cotton here, a splash of shining blood there. I don’t know what his life was like, probably something you could summarize in ten words. “Farmer. Worked all the time. Too poor to regret it.” Whatever it was, it was gone now. The children screamed and the women came out, their motherly instincts wondering if anyone had been there, not even attempting to shield their kids from a grisly, yet all too regular sight. That’s the true story of war.
Ten minutes before, everything had been so different. There was a farmer and his bull, some distance away, the beast grunting under the strain of the sacks, raising clouds of dust as he walked. Gunfire could be heard in the distance, close enough to be satisfying white noise and far enough to not be any danger. Children were playing outside the dirty houses next to me, trying to skip stones on the water, playing hide-and-seek innocently, as if a war wasn’t going on and the reason they were so good at it wasn’t that the soldiers had trained them. “Children are children,” someone told me once. It’s true no matter what everyone else around them is doing.
A young woman had come out, calling to them, holding a couple of rare, juicy oranges in her rough hands. I had smiled. She saw me and smiled back, her eyes creasing at the corners.
“Would you like one?” Only two oranges. Three children. And she was offering me one. The reason I love getting away from my rich life sometimes.
“No, no, thank you.” I had promised myself I’d bring her a dozen more the next day. “Beautiful children.”
“Thank you.” She had turned to go inside, behind a little wall that surrounded the tuft of houses, the children straggling on behind her, dusting the dirt off their dresses with dirtier hands. Kids, I’d thought. Like tigers. Fun to watch at a distance. Dangerous to have.
I realized their mother hadn’t recognized me. That, I guess, was where the content came from. No bowing, no admiration, no fear. A wonderful feeling of anonymity and belonging raced through me. I glanced back at the sunlight that caressed the tops of the waves, gazing for a long time at the lace of the breaking foam, playing and teasing the dappled blue depths. Far away, the temple bells rose, a beautiful chime, punctuated by rustling leaves. Laughter.
Then a small ticking had arisen, and I’d glanced down at the hastily hidden device. I’d run away from the river, not frantically but almost gleefully, ducking behind a stone wall and watching the noisy explosion and the frigid screams.
I watched the aftermath and I walked away, swinging my arms and whistling to myself, as if it had all been a game. To me, perhaps it was.
You see, I was a natural spy, a natural soldier. I loved it all. The chase. The cruel streak of a bullet. The warm, deceitful smell of gunpowder. The hum of shrapnel on cold leaves in fall. There was a deceptive beauty in it that made it so much more enticing than the pure beauty of peace. I loved to sneak around the country as if it was some deadly game of hide-and-seek, planning, running, and killing. Killing especially. Not in an evil way. I simply liked to hunt down bad people and watch them die. I oversimplified things, perhaps, but I was never evil.
I’d missed all of that. Missed the excitement, the work, the hunt. You’d think I’d be more afraid of a bomb, considering that the last one I’d witnessed I’d been caught in. That was a few months before on June 23, 2030. It was a normal day and it was a normal bomb in a warehouse in the normally bomb-ridden city of Halu. And it hadn’t even claimed my body, thank God.
In the air-conditioned halls of the hospital, when I first came out of coma, I was told that I would probably never remember my past. The doctor was cold and clinical; I was furious. I don’t remember much of those days, as I have the habit of only docketing important events. But I do remember yelling that people at twenty-eight years of age don’t get amnesia. That, unfortunately, didn’t change anything.
So after a month of shuffling around the hospital, even a bomb for me was nostalgic. War does a lot of things to a person.
Extracts from my diary after the Halu bomb in 2030:
July 17, 2030
I woke up today – I had slipped into a coma again – and another memory was there to greet me. At least I can hold a pen this time.
I “remember” a trip with an older woman (my mother?) to a desert. I “remember” the sunsets, the eyelashes of a camel I’d grown to love, before watching it end in blood and gore when it stepped on a land mine. I “remember” wondering for days, decades, why in God’s name there was a land mine in the desert. All of this is impossible, they say, and so if my one vivid memory is a fable, so is probably everything else I can conjure up.
Everything except this one:
I only hear these days how I have to get better, have to get better. I have an unfinished fight, they say. But I knew that. I remembered that day.
I remember the smell of sawdust, the wood, the feel of the floor, the air, the gooey silence. I remember her voice, and then the explosion.
Her face, I remember, haunted me. But now, I cannot remember her face. I only hope she also doesn’t remember mine.
My name was Sunehri Jeevan. I was Khala and North Mikran. That doesn’t mean much in itself. What does it mean to be Khala or Christian or Muslim? I suppose it’s about the Gods we worship or the words we say when we curse or pray. What did it mean to be North Mikran? I don’t know that either. Culture was so entwined with religion that it probably meant the same thing as “Khala.” I can’t tell you what those words mean, but I can tell you what it meant to me back then. It meant I wasn’t Rasta and I wasn’t South Mikran.
Negative identities are so much more powerful than positive ones. My name was Sunehri Jeevan, I should have said. I wasn’t Rasta and I wasn’t South Mikran.
When I first awoke from the coma, all I heard was, “You have to get better…You have to get better!!” It was Khan. He had screamed in my ear for weeks on end, his large, sinewy face barking at me, his thin lips disappearing under his jungle of a beard. He was a big man, in every way: loud, coarse, and fierce. The type of bigness that you know is projected to the world to hide some flaw of character inside.
Once I could, I started screaming back. “What do you think I’m doing, Khan? I don’t want to be here any more than–”
A metal hospital pole crashed to the ground with a firm bang, and my inability to pick it up, my sudden weakness, infuriated me. “God, just wait till I get my hands on the stupid fool who put that bomb there!”
“You think it was…” Khan started, for some reason hesitating, as if afraid to hear my answer. In the dip of his eyebrows, there was a hint of sorrow, confusion, and maybe regret. I didn’t know why, so I forgot about it.
“No, I don’t.” I gave the answer as firmly as I could, though I’d later mull it over for days. “It couldn’t have been her. She wouldn’t have…”
“But she was there! We knew she was there before we went in.”
“Of course, she was there, but she’d have…no, it just doesn’t feel like her.”
“Stop thinking about it. Get some rest. Go to sleep.”
Sleep, he’d said. Something I had begun to hate doing. It was all I ever did, and it left me vulnerable to memories of the past. Or at least fragments of memories, more like rocks at the bottom of the Rah’s rapids. They were like old camera shots that have been blurred by movement, the things you remember before you think you’re going to die. Most of them, I was told, were false.
But that night, for once, I slept. Deeply, almost sinfully. A calm breeze blew in, I could feel the closeness of the river, my hot body quenching its thirst in playful waves. I was in a stone pool, and I could feel the rocks under my bare feet as I got out to take a look at the buildings glistening in the distance. A rain was coming in. Marvelous weather. Perhaps later, I knew it must have been only a dream, for in all of North Mikra, there are no pools near the river. But at the time it felt as real as only the sharpest memories are. There was a tiny cliff, jutting out, and I’d brashly tried to tiptoe on one leg, feeling the wind in my face, almost able to blow me over.
Then suddenly, the wind turned, and I’d fallen in. Yes, I was a good swimmer, but I could feel the gasping water around me, and then the thrashing of me and another creature, large and scaly, so close and so dangerous. I remember thinking, I’m going to die, I’m going to die, how in the end I was one with nature and the water and the beast. It’s a dream, I thought, wake up! But my mind was trapped in a memory, so I couldn’t. And then, a clammy grip on my arm startled me. I wondered why the pain wasn’t coming; it must have been teeth and jaws.
But it wasn’t. He had gripped me, dragged me out of the sloppy waves and back onto the tiny shore. My best friend. His face haunted my dreams, his green eyes glowing through those dark mists of sleep like twin wildfires. I shivered as he almost carried me away from the river, not asking anything, and I turned to look at him.
Then I woke up. Khan and everyone else told me that that had never happened – I was a great swimmer and couldn’t possibly have been near drowning. I wasn’t afraid of crocodiles. Or anything, for that matter.
I believed them. But yesterday, for the first time, I tried to enter a pool again. In writing this story, I thought, let me attempt a happy ending, the feeling of moving on. But I couldn’t. I could swim in the water, yes, but I drowned in the memories, I struggled, I couldn’t float above the things I had done. I wished I would cry, could cry. But the waters of the Rah were there.
That boy hadn’t saved me. He had only made the crocodile hungrier and more ferocious in the waiting.
I “remembered” other things.
I remembered playing chess in the old outhouse with a sharp-eyed man, my father I thought. White and black pawns, I remember, perfect black and perfect white. Yin and yang, you need both to play. But in the end only one wins. Does it matter who? I don’t know. I think I lost.
I remembered watching the only 5d film I’d ever seen with him after he snuck us into the theater as masterfully as an ankh could have. I remembered the greasy popcorn, the Western dresses, the sounds, the smell of something delicious and warm and homely from a world I knew I’d never visit. Then we prayed for relief from North Mikra when a bomb siren screamed.
“And that’s all I remember, Mom…I can’t remember any other details, only these white-washed images of a lost memory.” My mother came for the first time only weeks later, but I had saved up the memories to ask her. I thought there was a possibility Khan simply didn’t know. But a mother surely would.
“You know it can’t be,” hesitation in her voice.
“I know. I know I’m a part of North Mikra, always have been. Why would I want relief from us? But maybe I didn’t work for North Mikra back then…maybe I just wanted relief from our bomb sirens.”
“You’ve always worked for the country.”
“But that dream, memory, whatever, keeps coming. And the father bit.”
“The father bit is a figment of a wild imagination,” she said forcefully. “Utter nonsense. In dreams, you mix reality and fiction. Reality: I snuck you in to see Jump to God in Halu. My contact. My movie theater. So that part is real. Though why you remember what you thought was a god-awful movie is beyond me.”
“And the father part?” I insisted.
Her eyes blazed, but she said it in halting tones, “He died. A year after you were born. You’ve known your whole life you didn’t have one. Please don’t ask any more about him. Of course, I told you everything I remembered once upon a time, but it’s too painful to repeat it now.”
She had a curious twitch in her chin when she was lying or hiding something. I noticed it now. But I didn’t argue back.
She changed the topic, “One day, you said you’d go see the land of that movie, remember? Maybe take a break…”
“What a crazy idea! My job is here! I am not retiring. I am going back to work very soon…How could you?”
“Don’t stress yourself…A mother will worry….but, just rest. And your face,” she sighed wistfully, sadly, “don’t worry too much.”
Now, by the way, I have finally been to America, where Jump to God was filmed. I have tasted apple pie. I have seen small uniform homes, with landscaped front yards, innocent orange trees, and more innocent people. It was the world of dreams from my childhood: all naiveté, naiveté, and more naiveté. But I had been the naïve one. I could visit America. But I couldn’t relive my childhood.
In the end, there were only two things that my memories hadn’t denied me. I remembered her. I didn’t remember my name, which I found out when someone called me “Sunehri,” but I remembered hers, or at least what we called her at camp. Agent S. The enemy of my life. The person who everyone thought was a boy, because other than me no other girl would be fighting a war.
But I knew she was a girl. Only a girl, a woman, like me, could be that cunning, that sharp, and that passionate.
I hated her with all my heart and soul, partly because I had never seen her and she was the one person whose entire life was a silent mystery to me, partly because she was South Mikranese and the best spy on her side, and mostly because she was as good an ankh, if not a better one, than I was.
That was the second thing I never forgot, not through all my amnesia: the fact that I was an ankh, a spy, an eye of god. That I was the best of the best – perhaps even as good as the (in)famous Ming – that I could fit into tiny ventilator shafts, that I could act like a decrepit old woman and a young man in love a split second later, that I could think up plans in the blink of an eye. All of that I never forgot. I could not forget. My country depended on me.
It seems stupid to say that I could forget myself and not my country. It is useless to pretend that war is still that way, that war was ever that way. But it’s true. I would live and die on the belief that I was part of something bigger, that there was such a thing as “country,” whether it was camaraderie or a flag or an ideal. Of course, I didn’t fight for those reasons. I could never have told you what “country” was if you’d asked. I fought because I depended on believing in a country. I fought for the country of myself.
The one time I had met Agent S face to face had apparently been the day of the memory-snatching warehouse bomb. I learned from Khan that it was my special assignment to track her down. It was the hardest assignment the North Mikran government had. And I’d done it, almost as a dare to myself. I almost laughed when I found that out. Somehow I could step outside of my body and see me doing something crazy like that, risking my life and the future of a nation to prove that I was the best.
“Agent S is your goal. He is your goal. Don’t lose sight of your goal.” Khan and Laki chanted, enunciating each word peculiarly in the North Mikran fashion, entirely unlike the sing-song manner of South Mikranese, or my own tone-less drawl. “When you leave this place, make him pay for your memory. He will be worth everything. You can’t let him get ahead of you. It will be better than the rains after this drought when you catch him!”
Buoyed by their chants and my own desire to, more than anything, carry a gun again, I had gotten up a week after the coma, bubbling awake like the streams at the source of the Rah. I used the bathroom for the first time on my own in several weeks, and then spent nearly an hour staring at the mirror. For days, I had heard how my face had completely healed except for one scar, a scar that was like a pen’s ink driven indelibly into my cheekbone, laughing at the world from its conspicuous location. Apparently when I was a child, I had gotten some mud on my face in the shape of a scar and I had been so scared about its ruining my perfection that I had screamed in horror.
People remembered it, apparently, because I usually never screamed. People remember unusual events. “Maybe that’s why we remember war,” Laki said once. She was wrong. War is usual. War is status quo. Maybe we should remember peace. But we don’t do that either.
This time, I didn’t scream. The mirror, oddly, fit. It didn’t stare back at me – it merely smiled a sad smile and relinquished itself to the fact I was looking into it. The scar didn’t shock me. Though quite large, it seemed to be fine, pretty even, accenting my face and matching the black of my large eyes and the curl of my midnight waves. It was as if I had been born with that scar.
July 23, 2030
It turns out today’s the one month anniversary of the bomb, diary. The funny thing is that no one knows how it went off. I hadn’t planned it. Perhaps she had.
But it’s not like you remember. I have read all through you now, to find out about what my life was like and how I felt about things, but you are only full with plans and schemes and mentions of Agent S.
The things war does to a person. Was I a woman? Or just a set of goals that may get fulfilled one day?
My eyes hurt, but before I go, the oddest thing is happening with the mirror. If I stare long enough at it, this black mark on my right cheek appears and disappears, in and out, as if on some merry-go-round of time.
Anyway, diary, it is now haunting my dreams. My other face and my face. With that mark, without that mark. I don’t know what it is. It vanishes cleanly without a trace, and it appears evidently, but unobtrusively – like a birthmark, not like a scar.
My friends and family have guaranteed that was the only change with me when the bandages all came off. My torn right cheek, now perfectly healed, is the only physical proof of the bomb. I hope they are right, diary, because if something else on my body changed, I doubt they would know.
And I am beginning to doubt if I will ever remember.
The last week of July was when my mother came to visit me for the first time. She walked in casually, as if without a care in the world, but her eyes told a different story. They seemed to have cried out the Rah. I had been in enough situations before, though, that she shouldn’t have been scared. I have been reading my diary recently, and the bomb was barely the worst that has happened to me. Perhaps it was the fact that the fields would be fallow for the rest of the year that was bothering her. Food was getting scarcer and scarcer as the drought continued mercilessly starving the lands.
Or, perhaps, it was me. After all my years with soldiers, I’ve noticed mothers cry a lot. Every time some little thing happens, they cry. I found it hard to sympathize. I never cried. Maybe war did that to me, maybe the fact that I believed I was rational and truly understood life and found nothing to cry about. Maybe it was that I had ceased to care.
I was gazing at the mirror when she came in, letting the scar fade in and out. When I turned to face her, her smile froze, she glanced at the ceiling momentarily, and her eyes gaped as if she’d seen a ghost. She collapsed, unconscious on the clammy floor, falling like the river does at the Rah’s heights.
“Doctor,” I stood up to help the stranger, for at the time I did not know who she was. I remember she smelled of salty sea and cocoa, strange smells for a dry and thirsty war. I think my nonchalance surprised me. “A woman has collapsed in this room…who is she? Doctor??”
“What’s the matter…I told you not to overexert yourself. Do you not understand this country needs you?” he exasperatedly reached the door. “O Khasa, what happened to your mother?”
“This is my mother? Though I doubt I saw much of her even before the bomb,” I bitterly helped the doctor lift her as I scanned her features. She was small, but not in an elderly way, and her skin flew over high cheekbones and huddled into her sharp nose. She had no wrinkles and her eyebrows were perfect arches, like mine, but there the similarities ended.
“Don’t talk of your mother that way. She has lived a harder life than you can ever imagine. Without a husband….Imagine what it was like to realize he left. She loves you, has always been there for you. If she wasn’t stuck in South Mikra –”
“Yes, Agent S was…sit down…” he put reviving salts to my mother’s nose.
“I am really going to make her pay.”
“Him, Sunehri, it’s a him. You can’t possibly believe th–”
“Are you an ankh?”
“Are you an ankh?”
He stared blankly at me, the angry wrinkle in his wide forehead suggesting he knew the response that was coming.
“I thought not. I am the best in this country and I am sure she’s a girl,” I said.
A quiet movement caught our attention and prevented the doctor, who was old enough to be my grandfather, from scolding me for my insolence. “Where am…Khasa be praised you’re safe…oh my god! Where did you get that b…scar from?” My mother sat up, stopping herself from cursing. I’m glad she did. I didn’t like cursing. It was probably the one remnant of my being a lady that remained despite everything. I still cringed when soldiers walked around thinking their petty problems were enough to call on God, the universe, and filthy language. “Damn” was the worst I ever used. And only when the world deserved it. Yes, death is often “bloody.” The way that word is supposed to be used. Not the other way.
“The bomb of course, piece of wood,” the doctor answered.
“Are you…quite sure? That it’s a scar?” she had claw-like fingers that seemed to want to touch it. I wouldn’t have minded, but she restrained herself.
“Her entire face was torn. We salvaged most of it quite nicely I think,” he gave a hearty laugh, as if he’d fixed a doll for his child. “What’s the matter?”
My mother looked deathly pale but composed herself. She did it admirably. “Nothing. Just was told my daughter was the same. I’ll…I’ll get used to the scar…just glad that sha –” She took a deep breath of air that whittled through her body, “That Sunehri is safe.”
She gave me a chilly hug, making the traditional sign of hope and health behind my back, then rigidly kissing my forehead.
“It was the soonest I could come,” she said.
“Well…” I had so many questions, but I couldn’t ask them to the bent stranger, forcing a smile at me, trying to convince me with familiarity that she was the woman who raised me, whom I’d told my secrets to, whose skirt I’d hidden behind.
“Thanks, Maram. I’m glad you’re here,” I noticed her hair was gray at the roots. So she dyed her hair.
“You called me ‘Mom’, not ‘Maram.’” It wasn’t a request. I sensed a story there, one that piqued my curiosity, but I held back.
“Should I stay?” she asked. Also not a serious question, and the want to leave was dripping all over her face.
“I was just about to sleep…Mom. How about in the morning?” I didn’t tell her that in this movie I remembered watching, Jump to God, the mom had sat for weeks by her daughter’s bed, while she slept.
“I’ll…I’ll see you, then,” eyes averted, she bowed, a hand on her heart and then, in parting, turned it to face upwards. A very traditional good-bye.
The next day, I remember she brought a faded old picture of me as a child and a little stuffed dog that had been my favorite companion growing up. I didn’t recognize myself at all, and couldn’t remember the worn-out little mutt, or how he got the ghastly line that tore across his eye. My mother had told me how I’d refused to let her touch it or have it mended, how I’d pored over him myself for weeks, in the end convincing myself that my haphazard stitches made him more beautiful than before the tear.
I laughed and she smiled back, her eyes slightly damp.
“More beautiful after the scar,” I glanced down at the toy. “Maybe I was just foretelling my future back then…”
I regretted it the minute I’d said it. It was a joke, but it brought the fear back in her eyes. She tried to be a good mother, but for some reason, there was always a wall between us. I tried to not notice it, tried to make up for the childhood I knew I’d never remember, all those things I’d really loved her for that I’d never feel again.
“So was I a good child?” I asked, switching the topic.
“You were naughty, but serious. You got involved in all this,” she gestured around her as if the war permeated every atom of the air, “very young.”
“Well…you saw things, I think. And I used to…help the government a little. Odd secretary jobs and the like.”
“Didn’t I play with other kids? What about school?”
“You went to a small school, outside the city. Thirty minute bus-ride every day. You were different. Didn’t have many friends. Only Khan and Laki, now that I think of it. And they are so much older than you.”
“They are not really, well, friend-like. What about likes, dislikes, games? Did I beg you for a sibling?”
Her eyes darkened again, “Why are you so interested in your childhood, Sunehri? Why not ask about the things you did right before the bomb, as an adult?”
“Because I know what I did. I know what I’ve been doing, Mom! But I don’t remember being innocent, happy, just a kid.”
“Maybe you never were,” she said, rose to leave, and then suddenly realized the harshness of that statement. “Maybe it was my fault.”
“No, I…aren’t you going to stay? You can’t leave every time you…”
“I’ll be back, later,” she said. “I’ll always be back.” Another thing about her. My mom was always using clichéd statements borrowed from movies. In any other woman it would have been a weakness, but in her old-bird-of-prey manner, she managed to make the sentiments seem novel and solemn.
“I love you, Mom,” I said before she closed the door. It wasn’t true. But I thought it would be if I’d had my memory. So I said it.
She smiled, “And I’ve always loved you too, child. Even…even if it wasn’t possible for me to tell you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing…just…nothing.” And the door closed.