A young woman watched a soldier read a paperback. She faced him from across her kitchen table, holding an empty glass in one hand, her long fingers wrapped nearly all the way around, and resting her chin on the other. With her eyes still on the soldier and his book, she pulled her thinning hair to one side of her neck. Her facial skin looked like a thin layer of parchment adhered to her skull. She wore a tattered nightgown, white with a faint pattern of red and green, and nothing on her feet.
I wonder how old my soldier is, she thought. Beneath his tired expression, he had the ingenuous look of youth. She thought he was about eighteen, four years her junior. To be young, she thought. The loss she had felt since the war began, of youth or anything close to a feeling of naivete, grew as she watched him. She was educated, and knew about cynicism. How it could take hold like an iron vise and squeeze every bit of innocence from you. She knew. But my soldier, she thought-has he come here to take me away from this? Sides don't matter after everything is gone. How could we be enemies?
They were on the top floor of a brick building, five stories tall. Around it, rows of buildings, once tall and proudly overlooking crowded city streets, lay flattened, or crumbling in pieces. As if they'd been made out of sandstone and someone, maybe God Himself, had taken the buildings in His hands and crushed them, letting the pieces fall to the ground in a pile. Occasional gunfire or pattering of desperate footfalls could be heard all around.
In the room next to the kitchen, the young woman's mother and older sister sat on the mother's bed. The thin walls of the apartment allowed them to listen to the happenings in the kitchen. There were windows facing the outside. With excellent perches, the two lolled away the hours viewing the ruins and the dark birds circling overhead, waiting. An unsure breeze passing through the room dissipated the odor from soiled clothing and bedding. But with it came the stench from outside.
The sun had taken on an ethereal orange-red hue throughout these long days, and in the kitchen its light sliced through a window above a stainless steel sink. It grazed the young man's shoulder, and sent a small reddish glow onto flowered green wallpaper. The table stood on a linoleum floor beneath a darkened ceiling light. Several small tin cans lay scattered across the tabletop.
"Is he still reading?" the mother called out from her bedroom.
The young woman looked away from her soldier toward the sound of her mother's voice, and then back again at him. Her brown hair moved from the side and now fell limp behind her back. She smiled, revealing graying teeth with several gaps between.
"He's so handsome!" she said to her mother and her older sister. "Don't you think he is?"
The soldier turned a page of the book, cast a curious glance at the girl, and continued reading. His black sideburns were cut evenly at one-half inch above the bottoms of his earlobes. He had sunken cheekbones and pallid coloring. A gray uniform, dirt-stained with several rips and an emblem of a bird on one breast pocket, hung on his frail body. On the other pocket were several colorful medal ribbons grouped together like flags in a parade. Their colors had caught the girl's eye when he'd arrived that morning, but now she saw that they too were soiled and dull.
He turned a page of his book. She wondered what the words said. Unfamiliar words marched across the cover. If he spoke to me, she thought, would I understand? Yet she did not feel fear-of him, or of his rifle leaning against the wall beside him.
"I'm so hungry," the girl called out to her mother and sister.
"What does he eat?" her sister said.
The girl put her elbows on the table, her delicate chin on her hands. She studied him. "He has this stuff he brought in little cans." She picked one up.
The soldier glanced at the girl and smiled with perfect, straight teeth. Then he continued reading.
She smiled too. "He likes his little cans, alright!" she said, and stroked his forearm.
The soldier pulled away from her, and put a hand on his gun.
"I'm sorry." She raised her arms to show she meant no harm.
He grunted, sighed, almost smiled again. Then he read.
"Would you like to have some bread? I think we could give him some bread," the mother said.
"He doesn't understand, Mother," the older sister said.
"How about you, Honey? Do you want some bread?"
"She can't eat that, either. She's still sick, Mother."
"Can't eat bread?" the mother said.
"Baby's still sick," the older sister said with a great self-assurance. "Your fever only just broke yesterday, Honey. Nothing solid today. You can't keep it down."
"No, Honey, nothing solid today," Mother said.
"But I feel fine. Don't I look fine?" the girl said to her soldier.
"You're not fine. Not yet. Maybe tomorrow. How about some wine? You love that! Does he love that, too?"
"Do you?" the girl asked.
"Everybody likes wine," Mother said. "We only have a little left, but he can have it. Go ahead, ask him." And then she said, "Look at that. Would you look at that. There's a rat on the roof next door eating a dead seagull. Do rats eat sea gulls?"
"I don't know, Mother." The young woman looked at her soldier. "If I was a rat, I'd be sleeping on a hot day like this one."
The soldier stretched his arms high over his head, brought them down slowly to either side as if resisting his surroundings, and then studied his watch. He pursed his lips as he looked now at the young woman.
"I know, Honey, but rats are funny like that," Mother said. "Isn't that a sight? I never expected that." Mother sighed. "What should we do now?"
"Do?" the older sister said.
"Do," Mother said.
"What about the wine? Are you going to drink the wine now, Honey?"
The young woman gathered her strength and stood, feeling knives of pain in her knees and her back. She stood erect, arms to her side, chin high, and walked the four steps to the cabinets, trying to remember when she could walk without a limp. As she searched the cabinets, she sensed the soldier watching her, his black eyes enveloping her whole body. She fumbled with things, pushing aside several dusty ceramic cups. "Where is it?" she called out toward the doorway.
"Can't you find any?" Mother said. "Did someone drink it already? Did he? Didn't you say he liked wine? Go help her find it," she said to the sister.
The young woman looked at the soldier as his head jerked up from his book to the doorway. "I didn't say that!" she yelled, now turning toward the musty cabinet. "And you shouldn't sound so accusing, Mother. He might get angry."
"But he doesn't understand us."
"He may not understand words, but other things communicate what you're feeling." She leaned into, and then grabbed, the counter. "I'm tired." Her own voice sounded listless to her.
"Go help her," the mother said again.
"Don't come help! I'll find it."
"The rat's gone-I'll come help you," the sister said. "Oh, my back aches so much. How much longer is this going to take?" Creaking spring sounds of her climbing off the bed could be heard in the kitchen.
"They say it depends," the mother said. "Maybe a doctor will be able to come soon. Not many of them left, I guess. Here she comes, Honey!"
His fingers tapping on the table, the soldier shifted his position and looked toward the hallway. He combed his hair with his hand and then looked at his hand in disgust, pulling several hairs from between fingers.
The young woman continued her search.
"Found it!" she said, finally, with a relieved look at her soldier. She held out a half-full bottle of red wine toward him as if it were a precious stone. "He didn't drink any!"
"Oh, good," the sister cried. "And look: the rat's back. Look at him eat!"
"He didn't?" Mother said.
"No. I told you."
"Well, does he like wine or not?"
"Do you?" Offering the wine, the young woman wanted him to feel her look bathe his entire body. She placed the bottle before him on the table and pointed to it. "Drink," she said. "For you." She reached for his hand as if she were going to touch a frightened animal, and placed her frail hand on his. "Yes, we're on different sides," she said in a hushed voice, "and you're scared. But so am I." And then she said, "We're here."
He closed the book, marking with a finger the spot where he left off, and scrutinized the girl as she stood before him. When their eyes met, he dropped his book, murmured something inexplicable, and then he reached around her with one hand and caressed her back.
"Oh," she whispered, lifting her head to the ceiling and closing her eyes. "Yes."
Her legs shook as she felt him lift her nightgown with both hands. When he reached the waist of her underclothes, he slid them off halfway. As they glided down her legs, over her aching knees and past her bony calves to her ankles, she felt a spark of life flare inside her.
She heard his breathing, but sensed no panic in him. Holding his head with both hands, she felt him touch her. Yes.
He then reached to lift off her nightgown.
"No," she said looking down at him, "my body...don't you see my body?" She cried.
He stood up then, wiped her wet cheek with his hand, and held her to his chest, wrapping his arms around her. She closed her eyes, and with her arms at her side, she wondered if he could feel her heart beating. She tried to steady her own breathing, felt shaken, repulsed by the thought of him holding her. The odor from his chest was sweet, inviting, and she slowly brought her arms around his waist.
For several minutes, she feasted on the comfort.
"What's happening out there, Honey?"
"Nothing," she said. "Don't come in here, Mother." But she knew they would both be coming in. She heard the squeaking of the bed springs again, and then the sounds of her sister and mother making their way to the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered to him.
He stood back, unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. She traced along his ribs with her trembling hands. She lifted her nightgown over her head and dropped it to the floor. As she shook, she shielded herself and leaned into his bare shoulder. And all the time he murmured to her, a sweet sound that meant more to her than any words she had ever heard.
As she felt the hard and damp floor against her back, she tried to block out the shuffling sounds of them getting closer. For the first time she was glad they were so weak from the sickness and hunger. Although her soldier was so young and slight, she thought that every one of her vertebrae could be crushed beneath his weight if he moved just so. As she watched him above her, his sunken features, his white chest with scattered hairs, hardly enough to call him a man, and tears streaming down his face, she held him. As the terror, and now the silence, had held them.
'Clever death,' she thought. 'But you don't have us yet.'
She felt his warm tears falling onto her. Her heart pumped, her lungs took in oxygen, she became aware they were being watched, but heard nothing. No objections, no screams of disgust, no cries for her to stop. Then she saw the outline of his rib cage, collarbones, the lump sticking out from his throat. And with one last exhalation of breath they held each other as if clutching the ground during an earthquake. They lay there and held each other tighter, tighter.