We’ve lost so much.
I’m not sure what’s worse. Whether us not remembering what good was in the world. Or choosing to forget there actually was some good in it. Mankind retreated to some preternatural state, where violence is the one universally accepted currency. I feel ashamed to admit I have dealt in it too.
Me, someone who used to abhor anything more than raised voices in a conversation. That was before the bombs dropped. We changed. These days, what you cannot obtain at gunpoint likely means your gun isn’t big enough.
So, I have one too.
Half-eaten by rust, the AK, still holding together only by generous amounts of duct tape, about as heavy to hold as my baby newborn had been. Oh, I still recall holding his tiny self. Not a sensation I’ll ever be ready to forget, I think. The weight of him squirming in my arms.
Odd, how the unimportant details remind us of that which had been. The rifle is now nothing, but dead weight slung over my shoulder. All I get from lugging it around is a sharp, stabbing pain under my shoulder, like I’ve been sitting in the draft for too long. Or burn in my forearms when I hold the damned thing up. I’ve been caressing it for longer than I ever could my own baby. Every now and then I look at the tip of the rifle’s barrel and I half-expect my child wink back at me, the little mischievous rascal.
Innocence has been lost too, I find. The few children who remain with us don’t smile much, their faces grimy and grim, like their moms’ or dads’ are. Nor have I seen them play too often. There’s not another day of discovering something new to play with, waiting for them around the corner. No more bricks to build castles with. Or doll houses to decorate with stories of its families. Everyone has grown up too fast. Especially the little ones. They look at me, stares vacant or uncomprehending, whenever I recount stories of how we used to play hide-and-seek with the neighbors’ kids. That’s the only game we grownups have thoroughly taught them. Hide-and-seek. Only compared to our time, there’s real guns the children are hiding from now.
Yesterday me and Anton came upon a cemetery of plastic dolls while we were foraging out in the open, looking for supplies. It certainly looked the part of a cemetery. Someone had strung up the dolls by the dozens, hanging them from the branches of trees. There was a shack in their midst, abandoned if not for another score of mute denizens. Whatever they had once seen, I wondered, their plastic faces could no longer betray, melted away into nothingness. We didn’t stick around the place for too long, let me tell you, once we scoured it. Not that there was much of anything usable we came across.
This is what my time has been reduced to. Idly wondering what had been, while I rummage through the entrails of our collective past, searching for anything salvageable, broken mementos, anything which will help us rebuild our former, decent selves. If only for the duration of another day, until our train rumbles to a halt again. The screeching of the brakes is a signal it’s time to strap on the gear and head out for another mission in this blasted land.
Today is no different, though perhaps I’m a bit moodier than on other days. It’s Tamara’s doing. Tammy, as I like to call her. Not that I can rightly blame the kid for anything. She’s been delightful. A ray of sunshine poking through the radioactive clouds.
Tammy joined our troupe not long ago. We were lucky to pick her up at a halt somewhere before Szczecin. She had been hiding in a car junkyard’s office. A scared little girl with strawberry-colored hair and oil-stained clothes. Nearly ran away when we found her, though Jenya caught up with her quick enough. We took her in, after a fair bit of sweet-talking. Our group doesn’t have enough children and we had learned, the hard way, that the laughter of kids is even more vital of a fuel than the coal powering our train.
Later, Tammy told us she’d been scared by our guns, that other men armed with guns had tried to hurt her before, same as they’d hurt her mama. That’s why she’d tried to escape.
Sometimes, the best meetings are the ones you don’t plan for.
Today, Tammy gave me a crushing hug, insofar a ten-year-old child can crush a man in an embrace, before I hopped off the train. Said she’d lost something a long time ago. Something precious. And that she didn’t want to lose it again. Which, of course, set the gears in my mind in motion, despite the reassuring smile I had learned to conjure and produced for her then. I don’t think I managed to fool her with it.
Perhaps today is a day to remember all that has been lost, rather than being solely about surviving till the next one. Perhaps the answer to the anxiety I’ve been feeling is the teddy bear I’m holding. The one I found while we’ve been walking through this ghost town of residential buildings, the toy leaning against the latched door of a house which has had its roof blown off. As if someone had left it there on purpose.
It’s a tiny thing, the teddy bear. Riddled with dust, one of the black plastic discs it has for eyes gone missing. Makes it look like it’s winking at me. Still, its smile is intact. Can’t quite put my finger on what I’m feeling. Elation. Feels as if I’ve just found a treasure. Something precious I managed to retrieve. The remainder of our scavenging sortie goes by uneventful.
I am acutely aware how ridiculous this is going to appear, as we trek back home. After all, what good is a half-blind teddy bear to a girl ten summers old? There is not much place for timeworn trinkets in our present. Save for those few of us who still remember what it used to be like. I’m a tad scared, honestly. I don’t know what sort of reaction to expect. In my head, I keep going back and forth between keeping the toy or discarding it. I seetle on keeping it, finally.
To my surprise, we pick up right where we left off, Tammy throwing herself around my neck. Throwing me off balance too.
“You’re back,” she pipes, squeezing tight.
“Of course. We’re back,” I say, fishing the teddy bear out of my pocket.
Tammy yelps, covering her mouth. But then she gathers the toy up, crushes it against her. I think there’s a tear welled up in the corner of an eye, but I make a show out of not noticing.
She doesn’t need to say, “Thank you.” A shy smile is enough to remind me we haven’t lost everything just yet.
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