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The Innocence of the Dead
Arjun Satish

The Innocence of the Dead

 2nd February 1944

  I don’t know when they are coming. As each day passes, it seems the sky grows overcast. But Papa always says, ‘ It’s going to be alright’ but I don’t believe him anymore even though I want to. I really want to. Yesterday, I heard my Papa whispering to Mama that our barn stock ran out.  Papa always smiles, though whatever ill fortune befalls us. But Mama, she is not that strong. I hear her sobs even though she always says,’ Dimples, girls don’t cry’.

     It’s been two days since I heard the first gunshot. They were more frequent overnight. Papa said they were hunting boars. But I have never heard of that before. I think he is lying. Yesterday, there were fireworks too.

    Today, Timothy came back after his evening scout and there was something in his mouth. He was wagging his tail like he had found something when he came to me while I was playing with my favourite doll. She sleeps next to me every night.

     He is the world’s sweetest dog. I fondle him as he bundles off from our wall. Timothy drops a muddy shoe in front of  me and I say, ‘What have you been up to now, Timmy ?’

   He gives a mellow whine and goes in swift circles. It always gives me the giggles. And his whiskery snout ends up nudging my toes. ‘ Ok, Let’s scuttle’, I say. I chase him like he likes and sprints jumping off walls till he reaches the outskirts. Papa will get angry if I ever crossed the bridge that runs over the stream, but I do. He has warned me so. Timothy turns and sees the hesitancy.  I walk on, slowly.  

    I saw a lot of black smoke billowing out in the distance. The gunshots are louder here. It was starting to feel scary. Will the boars hurt me?. I hope Papa is lying.

    Timothy barks and disappears behind a thick bush surrounded by nettles. When I see him next, there is something beside him, something that moves. I reach under the bridge beside the stream. The current is strong today.

    There was blood, a lot of blood on his leg. I have never seen so much blood. I clutch my doll close.  I was really afraid then. I wanted to see Mama badly. His eyes look upward and he is shivering even though it’s only evening.  

    He looked like a soldier I saw on a poster that Papa scolded at me for staring. He  turns his head slowly to me. His face was covered in blood too. ‘Water

   I didn’t understand what he said. He said the same thing again. But I still couldn’t understand. He then turned towards the stream and kept staring. My Mama always told me to help those in need.. I place the doll on the grass and take the helmet beside him.

    I pour the water slowly into his mouth with trembling hands.  The water spilled onto his clothes. I said I’m sorry. But I don’t think he understood me. He looked different from everyone I knew in Offenberg.

    He raises his bloody hands which are shaking now. I ran back as fast as I could, with Timothy on my heels. The man was badly hurt. He probably fell after a boar chased him. I open the cupboard where Daddy keeps all the bandages and medicines that he used on me for scraps whenever I fell chasing Timothy. I put them in my dusty school bag along with some stale bread and sandwichs and rushed back. 

    When I reached under the stream the hurt man was holding a picture of a  woman with flowers. It was dirty with blood and there was a  letter too. Then he said, ‘ Take ….Take it. Please.....please send it.’ I thought I saw tears in his eyes. The letter was shaking in his fingers.

   I tried hard to understand what the man was saying, but he was saying words that Papa hasn’t taught me yet. He raises his hand as if he wanted me to have it.  I am afraid that Papa will scare me. I take the letter and picture. ‘ She is real pretty’, I say looking at the picture.

    I hear more sounds. More gunshots. Only more louder this time. The boars were coming.I was so afraid that I dropped the bag and ran.  I'm sorry Mama  I cried. Timothy al……


 

     The sadness lumbered over him like a cloud waiting to shed its tears when he finished the unfinished words. The silence which had been earlier riddled with constant monotonous taps of his typewriter felt really depressing and peculiar now.  He imagined her writing this letter with her pencil hiding from her father when the shells and bullets flew. He looked at the old musty scribbled paper and the innocent german girl it so beautifully held. The partially burnt illegible account was almost impossible to transcribe written in the local German dialect. The Memorial Museum of Berlin had granted him access to this relic for his research thesis. He held the delicate paper and inhaled the staleness of it. Was it death he smelled?  

   Dr. Luther Helmsworth was devastated by this pumping obsession too meet this girl.  It was the insatiable thrill of this job, more of a passion, of digging up the buried past and witness the reincarnation thrive in the present that really riled him up. He felt this undying zeal to meet her and he knew this would elicit a couple of sleepless nights.

   Surprisingly, the letter and the photograph had survived. Lucky me. Maybe Dimples didn’t get so lucky.  He runs his glass over the polaroid.  A woman in her early twenties stood with an elegant smile, a sparkly ring adorning her hand while holding daffodils in the other. He unfolds the 58 year-old-letter carefully using his pincers.  The paper had rugged lines of a pale maroon. Dried Blood. His heart raced out of his chest as the excitement drove him on.


 

 January 22nd, 1944

The French Frontier 

 Dear Mary,

   It’s with a lot of heaviness in my heart that I write this letter. I know I haven’t written to you for almost a month now, for which I deeply express my regret. How are you? I hope you are doing well at the hospital and send my greetings to Mrs. Morlocks. I m sure she is giving you hell.

    News travels from beyond the frontier. There are lots of rumors about the camps in Germany and what they do to the others. The hideous and horrendous nature of it disables me to share it. Even though there is no official confirmation, I would be genuinely surprised if they weren’t true. I have seen things since Normandy that will make you think whether there is any good in this world, that there is a God here. God left this place a long time ago, Marie.  There are certain things a man must keep to himself. There is so much suffering. Nevertheless, I choose to see beauty. I don’t wanna burden you with it, for these are mine to carry for the rest of my life and it’s a terrible price to pay. 

    I feel quite different now like I have become this other person this war gave birth to. I have discovered feelings that I feel strange to. I strongly feel that you will be shocked and repulsed at the man I have become and that it will hinder your love and it scares me more than the enemy in the shadows. 

   They are saying we are more close to victory than ever, but victory feels like a distant cloud in the sky The orders came today and we are to breach the Frontier through No Man’s Land. Tomorrow, we go into Germany.  Only death awaits me everywhere I go and I believe that’s what’s waiting for me over there. All my mates are either buried or rotting in a  cornfield. This is it. I don’t think I will make it out, Marie. But, I swore to you I'm gonna be back and I will try and I do.  For it is you in that polaroid which you detest so much, that kept me going over every minefield the last three years even though it feels like a decade since I said goodbye. And I do see you every night, under every sky I slept, in every sun that sets and I hope you see me too in a starry sky, a teeny sparkle in a lonely constellation in the near future. Goodbye, You. 

Lots of Love,

Jimmy


   Luther was not a sensitive man, but he felt his defenses slacken to this despair, so strong that the fragile piece of history that he held fell onto the floor. It takes him some minutes to collect his thoughts and to prepare for the hunt

 The disbelief of what he held, the two extraordinary tales of an innocent German girl and a British soldier ravaged by war, linked by this chance encounter and an act of kindness,  was steaming in his mind, buzzing like a bee. Their stories were yet to be completed and he was going to make sure that they were. His fingers adeptly started typing.


******


Two months later.



   Luther’s sturdy legs were fidgeting as he waited in the lobby, for he had found the end of the trail. A man in a grey shirt and pants, probably an orderly, walks in and acknowledges him.

 ‘ Well, I not sure whether you’ll find what you are looking for. She has her days. I don’t think today is one of them’. Luther’s heart plummets but he hopefully nods. It’s one thing being a historian had taught him that you might never know what is at the end of the tunnel. The orderly guides him through a stretch of clean corridors, with rooms alternating on either side. He can see a few of them resting on an armchair and gazing through the window.


    The orderly stops suddenly turn into a random room.  Luther scans the room, his eyes finally resting on the table where the photographs of a young family with two kids and an older man ( ) are positioned. Disappointment again torments him as he realizes there are no other photos. She is also relaxing in the armchair, her complexion lit in the fading evening rays.

. Marie Higins felt like a  stranger to him, even though he had spent the last two months searching for a needle in a haystack, which had made him believe that he knew Marie more than anyone.

   ‘You have only 20 minutes’, he says taping his wristwatch,’ If you need anything, Mr  Luther, you can press the buzzer’. The orderly exits and the new eerie silence feels despondent.

.

   He takes the letter of the girl and reads for the umpteenth time slowly. Luther finishes it, taking pauses to observe the disposition of Marie, only to his vexation, and asks her ‘Do you remember Sergeant James, Mrs. Higins?’

   Seconds pass and there is nothing but the annoying tick of the clock. Luther feels a perplexing frustration emanating from within but he tries to put a pin on it and rises to leave, feeling every bit of him let down.

   Luther is at the door when he hears it, almost inaudible but he makes out,‘ ... have come back’. He dashes back to her side with a rekindled exhilaration.

   ‘ He shouldn’t have come back’, repeats the girl in the Polaroid.

   She moves and rises slowly clasping the cane from the armchair, Luther helps her as she points at the cupboard. He opens it and shoots a searching glance at the shelves until he finds it after a short search. His breath is stuck as he lifts the doll gently and school bag lying beside it. He helps her back to her armchair.

   ‘ So he made it?’ asks the eager doctor.  Luther shows her the picture and he can perceive the hint of a warm smile.’ Jimmy loved that picture so much and...’.

   ‘You hated it’ and puzzlement covers Marie and she sees the letter that rests on his palm. Luther gently unfolds it and reads.

   ‘Dear Marie.It’s with a lot of heaviness in my heart........        .......... I hope you see me too in a starry sky, a teeny sparkle in a lonely constellation in the near future. Goodbye, You. Lots of Love, Jimmy’.

Luther was once again so overtaken by the letter that he didn’t see the torrent of tears that flowed or the trembles that shook Marie. The layer of tears lining her bottom eyelid gleamed in her eyes. The sun had set.

   ‘What happened to Sergeant Jim?’ and Luther steals a peek at his watch. 8 more minutes. Come on Marie.

   Her larynx bobs down when she swallowed and forced the words that had troubled her whole life.      ‘ He had nightmares. He couldn’t sleep for many nights. When sleep came, he exploded as he woke up. The War. The goddamn War killed him. All because a bunch of fools couldn’t shut their wretched mouths.’

   ‘He should have died there. The jimmy who shyly flirted with me asked me out as I tended to his wound was not the same Jimmy that came back with the golden stars on his shoulder. He refused to talk about it and I obliged reluctantly. He dreamt about the girl a lot. It was her benevolence that ultimately saved him. Maybe she shouldn’t have.’

   Luther couldn’t stop himself from interrupting. ‘ Did he say anything else about the girl he met in Offenberg?’

   ‘When the troops barged into Offenberg with the reinforcements, he found her or what was left of her among a pile of rubble.  Her house had been burned down in the attack.It must have been horrible for him.  Maybe that was the tipping point but I will never know. In the summer of 1946, I found him sleeping peacefully beside a bottle of pills.  And I think that was the best sleep he got. These wars have a twisted way of weeding out the innocence  and planting the seedlings of death‘

‘Its time’ says the orderly who seemed to have metamorphosed out of air. A tear begins its descent down the summit of her cheek and he tries to weigh the mix of her emotions but he couldn’t get anywhere near it.

   ‘Thank you, Mrs. Higins’.The words resonate with gratefulness.

   ‘ Keep the doll and the bag. I have found my peace and will always love him.  I don’t need them no more. ’    

  The excited Dr. Luther walks out of the nursing home, clutching the small bag and the doll with this fulfilling content that he finds himself lucky to be thrust upon, and the words of Marie Higins trailing in his head. He still had many more gaps to fill...



The End

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 



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