04 March, 2015


It was her posture that caught my eye. At first glance, she appeared an old woman in rags, shuffling about the camp and serving the soldiers. At second glance, I realised that she was in fact a young woman dressed in dirty soldier cast offs that were several sizes too large for her. When next she came near to pour more tea for the men sitting beside me, I examined her grimy face and unkempt hair. Her ankles were bound with clanking chains, hence the reason for the shuffling.

To see so many scars is not unusual in the war, but somehow, whenever I see young children and women marked in such a way, an unfathomable sadness wells up within me. Often, they are given these lifelong reminders of the war and its horrors through no fault of their own. When I asked my fellows about her, it took them some time to realise whom I was referring to.

“She arrived the night after saboteurs planted a bomb that took out Marsden’s company. Word was that she was one of the saboteurs, but was given a reprieve for some reason,” Sharon, one of the body building blokes rumbled. With muscles his size, nobody would ever dare question him about his name. “Some of us were set on killing her when we had the chance, but after she’d been here a while, we started questioning whether she really was a spy.”
“She’s more like a deranged refugee,” Tim scratched at a crooked tooth and made a whirly loopy sign to the side of his head. “There’s something not quite right up there.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“She’s kind of dumb,” Jan snorted and spat, his phlegm barely missing the Sharon’s foot.
“Not that it stopped any of you boys from taking revenge on her or using her,” Sharon elbowed Jan in disgust, completely knocking the man off his crate.
“So? A bitch is a bitch,” Jan shrugged, carefully resuming his seat in case Sharon decided to knock him down again. “And if she could talk, who she gonna complain to?”
“A dumb bitch like that,” Tim rolled his eyes at their antics, “would never have snuck into our camp, planted a bomb, snuck out again, and then set the bomb off. She would have blown herself up before she even got into the camp or been caught by the guards. They reckon the guy who set the bomb blew himself up with it.”
“Stupid girl was sitting in the middle of a thorn bush when we found her,” Sharon shakes his head in disbelief. “When we pulled her out, she didn’t even resist. That’s not to say she didn’t try to escape. Although after the Captain talked to her, she did go kinda crazy. I wonder what he said.”

At my questioning look, Tim clarified.
“He means Captain Peters with the impossible first name starting with a ‘P’. Bloke was killed last month, so you wouldn’t have met him. Great guy. Fun to hang with. Hey, you guys remember the time he had a drinking competition and out drank even Hein Steinz?”
Sharon shook with laughter at that.
“Captain drank us so under the table that when the Major came round the next morning, we were still drunk, but the Captain was still as perky as ever. Covered up for us by saying we’d had food poisoning because of some bad meat and then offered the Major some leftovers.”
“What about the time he got us together with a bunch of – ”
Sharon knocked Jan off his crate before he could finish his sentence, glaring a warning at the scrawnier man and then looked grinning round at us all.
“Anyway, Danno, you missed having the best captain a soldier could have. Captain Anders is all right, but man, you would have loved Captain Peters.”

I watched the young-old woman, hunched and shuffling like she was decades older, wondering what indignities she must have suffered at the hands of men like Jan, who only thought for their own comfort and amusement.

All three men drank a toast to their fallen Captain’s memory, eyes swimming with tears; except for Jan who was now watching the woman as I was, albeit with a nasty expression on his already ugly face. For a moment, I was glad I was not the woman. Immediately, I was ashamed that my first thought hadn’t been for her safety and excused myself from the group of friends who had fallen sullen and silent, staring at the fire.

Later that night, I was returning from using the cleaner officer’s toilets under the cover of darkness, when I heard a noise. Walking as silently as my boots would allow me on the sandy gravel of the road, I saw Jan approach the old-young woman who appeared to have just been leaving the kitchens. In the cast off light of a lit window, I saw suds still gleaming on her arms. The moment she saw Jan, she crumpled to the ground without a sound, forcing him to drag her out of the patch of light and back into the shadows.

For a moment, I was assailed with two thoughts. One that every soldier did it and that I shouldn’t interfere, forgetting for a moment that I was a soldier now too; and two that I should save her, at least to ease the guilt that would otherwise lie upon my conscience. It was clear that the other soldiers no longer saw her as another human being and my need to blend in warred with my sense of decency.

In the end I followed the sounds of a body being dragged and Jan’s grunts. What I was going to actually do, I wasn’t sure.

We ended up in the parking lot and Jan dropped the woman on the ground between two trucks.

“Thought you could avoid me?” I heard Jan sneer amidst the sound of something striking meat. “It may have been a while, but it doesn’t mean that I’d forgotten about you. You think everyone’s taken in by your stupid act? You and I know better, don’t we? Why else would Captain Peters tell me to kill you in the case we lost the war or the camp was overrun? You know something – some secrets and I mean to force them out of you eventually. You’re an enemy spy. I know you are. He was a stupid man, the Captain was. Always thinking he was better than anybody else, just because he could hide his dirty side better than the rest of us. We saw the real side to him that time he got a bunch of us guys together to teach you a proper lesson. I could organise an orgy like that again, if you’d like. You should’ve been executed like the rest of the spies.”
“Kill me then.”

The words were slurred, but distinct.

I thought Jan had said she couldn’t speak. I think he’d believed that himself, because there was silence for almost a full minute. And then he began to laugh. I wanted to block my ears from the ugly sound.

“So you can talk,” Jan said in between chuckles. I crept closer to see. “All this time and I was right and they were wrong.” There was a sharp schick of a knife being pulled out from its sheath. “You wanna die? I can help you with that, but tell me first why the Captain didn’t kill you himself.”
“Just kill me,” I saw the woman’s body jerk upright and her arms latch onto Jan’s, making him yell in surprise, trying to force the knife down toward her body. “Kill me. Just kill me!”

There was a struggle for a moment, but eventually Jan fought her off and threw her to one side, holding his knife clear of her.

“You’re crazy, you know that?” he said calmly, putting the knife away. “I get it now. You’re desperate to die, but too scared to kill yourself. It all makes sense to me now. You wanted to die, so the Captain let you live. You’re no spy and if you were one once, you’re not now.”

He kicked her and laughed.

“Cos you’re nothing,” he leaned in and said in her ear, holding her hands clear of his belt. He forced her back down onto the ground and when she let loose a sob, he laughed again, moving with greater urgency to get any clothes out of his way.

I picked up a stone and threw it some distance away, making him pause for a moment.

Unexpectedly, footsteps crunched toward where I’d thrown the stone and I crouched down.

“Oi, Jan, where you gone?” Tim’s voice called. “What’s taking so long to take a piss and what are you doing out here? You gonna get us in trouble tomorrow with your gear the mess it is. Sharon’s about ready to wring your neck.”

Cursing under his breath, I heard Jan zip his pants back up and walk out to Tim.

“You just wrecked a perfectly romantic moment, you idiot.”
“Your dick ain’t going anywhere,” Tim snorted, disgust evident in his voice. “Don’t see what interest you have in a ragdoll like that anyway. There’s no fun in beating someone who’s already down. It’s just sick and you’re a dickhead thinking she’s a spy.”
“She ain’t a spy. Not anymore,” Jan crowed.
“What’d you do?” Tim’s footsteps paused.
“Don’t worry. I just finally managed to make her talk.”
“I thought she was a mute. What did she say?” their footsteps resumed.
“She’s crazy. Just wanted me to kill her.”
“I’d want someone to kill me too if a bloke as ugly as you came after me – ow. What was that for?”

After their voices and footsteps had faded away, I slipped around the truck to where the young-old woman was still lying, my stomach feeling heavy at the fact that I hadn't really tried to save her - that I hadn't the guts to face up to a man like Jan. Although nothing much would have happened if I had been found aside from some dirty jokes, I still felt my heart racing and relief coursing through my veins.

“Hey. Hey, come on. They’re gone now. I’ll help you back to your lean to.”

She didn’t answer me. In the dim light, her eyes glimmered, staring up at the starry sky. In her right hand, Jan’s knife glinted.

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