I have heard stories about the few embers of civilisation that persist still. They live behind heavily fortified walls, manned by men so big, our ancestors would call them giants, with weapons that shoot metal so fast they can kill you in one shot. They care nothing of outsiders. The only thing on their minds is their juicy steaks, their entertainment and their soft bed that waits for them at the end of the day. I don’t judge them. Given the chance, I would care for exactly the same thing. I wouldn’t even think of their existence, if they weren’t responsible for my situation right now.
I was born and raised in a collective, sheltered in the ramshackled ruins of a residential building. My life as a child was not so bad. I was playing hide and seek in the ruined building with two other kids my age, or soccer with a ball of rags. An older kid was my tormentor for some years, he used to pull my ear and hear me scream until help arrived from the adults, but that didn’t last long. Soon he grew up and became more interested in his wife than little kids playing. I also had some schooling. I learned to care for our crops that we had on the roof, to read and write and some basic arithmetics. As I learned later from my father, I was very lucky to be born there. In other collectives, other people my age can barely communicate with each other with speech.
When I grew a bit older and my body got stronger, they started training me for battle. Wooden clubs, rusted pipes and rocks. We made sure to preserve our clubs very very well, to prevent rot. They were made from curtain rods, solid wood, made before the wars, thus very rare and strong. We took them out of their sheath only when we were traveling to the outdoors for water, herbs and maybe even hunt animals.
I can remember the first time I got out of our building, two winters after the beginning of my training. My father told me to stay close to him. He didn’t like it that I was commanded to be part of the mission. I saw the remains of the old city. The majority of buildings being completely collapsed. Whenever we were seeing buildings standing, we were changing our route. Those were the homes of our enemies, my father had told me and in my mind I was picturing hunched monsters with long nails that were feeding on human flesh. But those monsters were living in buildings just like our own. Some broken walls, chipped away paint and heavy barricades at all the entrances. On the streets there were huge holes on the streets. Craters from a war, my father told me.
I remember when I was just a little older than a toddler, being scared from the sounds and fire of war. For some time, maybe for five winters, war was frequently visiting our ruined city. When it happened we all run to our basement and waited out for the explosions to stop. Our basement was open and vulnerable from all sides and I remember being worried for the possibility of enemies coming in. My father reassured me that we didn’t have to worry about our enemies, nobody would dare travel out on the streets as long as war was going on and the giant warriors with the firearms were not interested in us. We had to stay in the basement, because one miscalculated explosion could bring the building down. We spend days and days under sturdy tables or anything else that seemed robust enough. The eldest or the most fearless of us ventured on the roof during the day to manage our crops. Because nature doesn’t wait for wars to stop.
Well, back to the memory of my first time outside of our home building. We would travel to the grasslands on the countryside to gather herbs and water from the river. Our leader had a crude map of the city that he had marked it in great detail to avoid our enemies. But we ended up bumping on to some anyway on a large road.
We had a few more men than them. We both started sizing each other group up. My father pointed to a young man, who looked weaker than me and told me that in case of battle, I should go and kill him and in general to look for weak or preoccupied enemies to kill. The most experienced of us would handle the rest. It wasn’t smart of us to sit there all day long. We all went on one side of the road, to show them that they could pass from the other side and that is what they did. They didn’t look like they wanted a fight. Both are groups were nervous but also curious. We didn’t get to talk to people outside of our collective, we were too afraid to seek them out, but it was something we all wanted very much. Yet the only thing we ended up discussing, through our leader, was about how dangerous were the grasslands at this period of time. They told us that there were more Hunters than usual, but if we stayed away from the hills, maybe we could pass unnoticed, just like their group managed to. We saw that they were carrying tin cans, surely full of water. It was very tempting to attack them. If we could take them on, we wouldn’t risk a battle with the Hunters, we wouldn’t risk getting all the way to the countryside and getting tired, only to be attacked by another group, like they were. We could see that the long walk and the weight of the water had taken their toll. We could be back home the same day.
When they moved away, our leader told us the plan. We would attack them and take what they were carrying. Those who retreated in fear before us would be allowed to leave, but our scouts would follow them back to their home without being spotted. They would mark their building to out map and bring back as much information about their defence as possible. Our battle should be fast and as quiet as possible.
We approached them again. We didn’t have to draw our weapons for them to know what was going to happen. They had the bad luck to meet us while they were coming back, tired. They were easy targets. And they knew that. They drew their weapons first to show us they were ready.
It didn’t feel right, hitting that kid on the head with my club. Neither did he. He only gave me a half hearted hit to the ribs, before I got him. After I finished him, I saw a man who had pinned down my father and they were fighting hand to hand. I hit him on the back of the neck. My father pushed him off him, grabbed a large rock and crushed his head under it.
We started looking for other enemies that were preoccupied with fighting our men, so we could kill them. That was our tactic and more of our people started doing that. It helped that we were more than them. My father killed a young man who killed one of us. It became clear that they had lost the battle. Some retreated as we have predicted. Others stayed and fought, because the rage from seeing their brothers dying was too much and it blinded them. We lost some good men too. As it was our ritual, we carried our dead back to our building to eat them. We left our enemies there to rot and be eaten by maggots and flies, as I learned from my father. I didn’t like that thought. After all they didn’t try to hurt us. They were not that different from us. They didn’t deserve to not be honored by anyone. But those were the rules of our leader.
The next day, our scouts returned with the location of our enemies home. It was a residential building, like ours. It wasn’t too defensible, it had too many entrances. They also didn’t have enough men to guard them all. Most of the sentries where the people who retreated from our battle and they even had to have their women stand guard. We decided that they didn’t have too many men left. We left some of our people back to guard our home and the rest of us marched against our enemies. We took with us more than we needed, we didn’t want to risk to lose more men in this attack. As we walked I could feel the power of my dead friends inside me. I could feel it in my muscles, the strength that I got from the ritual, from them. We would attack during the day. We would let the women live and capture them, since we didn’t have many of them in our collective.
To our surprise they didn’t even try to fight. They were all hungry and thirsty. We were offered to take from them whatever we wanted, in exchange for letting them live. We chose some of their women, some fertile soil, food and seeds and what was left of their water. It was a death sentence for them. They knew it. They said that they would try to live on the grasslands, hoping that they wouldn’t get caught by anyone and that they could live there. Our elders knew that it was suicide. In the countryside they would be exposed and in constant danger from the Hunters. But we didn’t say a word. It was us that had forced them in this situation after all.
The wife I chose, was a bit older than me. She told me that this wasn’t the first time that she had lived this situation. She was stolen from her birthplace by the group we had just destroyed. Our food production after the battle had grown, just like our population. Inevitably so did our water needs. Our missions to the river had increased in frequency. We were reaching the limits of our population. Old people died and children were born to replace them. My father was one of them. A pain in his chest, growing even greater every day. But he waited until my firstborn was born and be given his name. After that he gave up and died, happy that he would live through my son. After that I made another son. My wife had another son before them, that was lost in a fever. I agreed to give our second son his name. She was happy to see them grow strong and healthy and in a community that provided a good environment for them to grow smart. And for a very long time, I was happy as well.
And then war returned, worse than ever before. Everyday, we could hear hundreds of explosions. Bursts from firearms were all around us. We even saw some of the warriors on the streets. We hadn’t seen anything like them until then. They were two to three times bigger than even the biggest of us. They wore clothes that blended almost perfectly with the environment. They were either hiding behind half demolished walls, or run to their next cover.
When it was my turn to go to the roof and care for the crops, I risked taking a look around the city. Buildings that used to be standing tall, now where laying on the ground. Collapsed, probably killing all their inhabitants. Our building was relatively in a good shape. The warriors used our upper floors to get a better view from the high ground , but when they were done with whatever they were doing, they were leaving without breaking any of our work. Only one of our crop bed had been trampled by them, because it was at a spot that had an excellent view of a big road. I dared look on that road and saw the bodies of warriors, but quickly moved away before I got the attention of who knows who was down there. The walls of our building had taken many hits, by projectiles and luckily not explosions. They were enough to sometimes break large pieces of it. After the war we would have many more entrances to be guarded against enemies.
After about a month the war was still going on with an even greater ferocity. Our building was shaking and we were shaking with it in fear. For hours this had gone on. Some tried to sing, others just cried openly, without even keeping a mask of bravery for the good of the collective. A large explosion was felt in our chests and almost deafened our ears. What I heard after that I imagine was the sound of the floors falling one onto another. I holded my wife tight and she did so too.
I don’t know if she did it on purpose, but her body protected me. We were trapped under a half broken table, in the ruins of our collapsed building. I was lucky that it hadn’t broken off completely, fate wanted me to live for a bit more. Somewhere close to me were my kids. Tears flowed when I thought how foolish I was when I told them to hide under another table. In theory, my father had told to me, the tables could protect us from falling rubble. He had promised me that when I was a kid. But now that I had seen the strongest table of our building getting crushed, trapping me underneath, I knew that it was all stories. Lies we told ourselves to give us hope to live.
It was dark, our little bubble of air. My wife in my arms was trying to keep breathing, trembling in fear of her end. She didn’t want to die. I kissed her. I couldn’t find the words to say to comfort her. My chest was heavy. I had trouble breathing. In my final moments I thought of my life. I thought of how insignificant we were, that our death would not change anything. I was born in a world that was ruled by war. The horribleness of death was not enough to stop it. Why did people chose war. Why was it worth it to stop prematurely the lives of people who lived, who laughed, who loved? War didn’t even stop when people had nothing to divide them. There was enough land in the world for everyone. Was it fear? Was it sadism, imposing your will no matter what? The answer was sitting just in front of me, but the fog in my mind couldn’t let me see it. Last breath. My father had said that we would go to a better place after our death. But perhaps he was wrong yet again. I see a light behind the fog of consciousness.