A seething sun illuminates me.
It swells and swoops down swiftly.
A billion flakes of fire lift me up, and I take off upon their wings.
We’re enemies. I know it. They do too. Our ancestors were enemies. So will be our children. The reason? Never thought about it. They used to talk about this in the old times. These days, no-one cares. Somebody cast out someone else into the wilderness after a family row. They chose to heed different prophets. And so it went. To me, it doesn’t matter. Let them who have the time read.
I walk toward the house. The imitation of a house. A little shack made of any junk that was around. They’re there, but do I have a choice? The sun ate part of my face and arms. It bites savagely. The uniform hangs in tatters, but the shoulder straps are intact. ShouldItearthemoff?I ask myself. No, no point in that. I know their language but I can’t pass for one of them. Sand, fine and tasteless, crunches in my mouth. I’m choking. I’ve trudged across this emptiness for two days. I’ve long run out of water. No-one can help me. They aren’t even looking. I’m yet another national hero who’s been given up. The outlines of my target start wavering across my hazy vision. My legs weigh unbearably much as they strain to keep me up. Will I reach it, ever? I’m almost there. I start counting the steps. Ten, five, one.
I stand before the door. A piece of cardboard tied with wire. I hear nothing. Are they inside? Are they many?
I close my eyes, clench my fist, extend my arm. I don’t hear any knocking. I stand there for a while, my eyes closed, breathing, before I muster the courage to go in. And then?
I take a look.
There at the threshold, a tiny shape appears before me. A child. I try to speak but my parched throat remains mute. The ground dashes and lunges at my forehead. Pain wakes me up. My whole body aches. Or maybe it’s not that. I’m burning. A trickle is streaming down my forehead. Oh, God, thank you! I’m alive! My sight comes back with difficulty. I need time. I can distinguish silhouettes in the dimness. Two. Small ones. They are sitting on the ground with their knees folded. One of them reaches out and a blessed trickle wets my face. I open my lips, trying to say something. I fail. I’m thirsty and I’m burning.
“Please, water!” I whisper.
“Water! Please!” I’m stronger. I say it in their language. They understand me and one of them offers me a foul-smelling vessel. I cannot reach it. My head feels like stone.
The silhouette comes nearer. I can now see a child. It wants to help me. It lifts my head and I take a sip of the liquid. Water! Not fresh. It tastes bad but there’s nothing in the world that I want more. I manage to take a close look at the child. A boy. Seven, eight or nine years old. I can’t be sure. All boys look the same. Used to the dimness already, I can examine the other one. A boy. Apparently, younger. He looks very frightened. He glances at me, from behind his brother’s back. I see no-one else. They have dragged me to the inner side of the door. How have they managed?
“Are you two alone? Where am I?“
No answer. I realize I scare them.
“Don’t be afraid! Nothing bad will happen to you! I just want to rest.” I try to sit up but I can’t. I lie back on the hard ground. I realize it’s actually sand. The hut has no floor. The sand beneath the rug I’m lying on assumes the shape of my body. I’m drifting off.
“What are you doing here?” Someone’s shaking my shoulder.
I need time. I’m given some. In the dim light, something flashes before my face.
“Tell me, what are you doing here?”
I see what’s flashing. A knife. It touches my face. It is a woman holding it. I can tell she is young.
“I’ll rest a bit and will be off,” I say truthfully. I do not fear her. Nor do I fear the knife. I am a warrior. I will not whimper in the face of death.
“I know what you are and where you’ve come from.” She pulls her hand back. “You’ll stay as long as needed. When you’re ready, you’ll leave this place. For good! Drink!” She gives me the pot.
“Thank you!” I whisper as I take a sip, and fall asleep.
It’s not pain but the cold that wakes me up. During the day, it’s hot in these lands. The nights are cold. I get used to the dimness and see two eyes of fire. I strain my sight and make out the woman. The children in her arms, she lies at the opposite end of the room. The little ones are wrapped in something but she’s not. I look around. I myself am half-covered by a warm shabby rug. I manage to get up, although it’s hard. The woman springs up and lifts her arm. She’s showing me the knife. I slowly raise my hands. I show her the rug I’m holding in my fists. I’m trying to convey my intention. I want to give her the rug. Never in my life have I seen such eyes. I slowly approach the bodies huddled on the ground. I carefully cover the woman and lie next to the children, on their other side. I can feel her eyes. She’s silent. She doesn’t want to wake the children. The knife is in her hand, I know. She won’t hesitate. She’ll stab me at the slightest provocation. I’m calm. I reach out and carefully put my hand on top of hers. She’s still clutching the knife but doesn’t pull her hand away. Though enemies, we are now embracing two children. We’re getting warm. We spend the night together. Four bodies, one embrace.
The next morning, Semra—that’s her name—brings out a shriveled flat loaf. She breaks it into three pieces. Two of them she gives to the children. The last one she shares with me.
“This is for you. Here, you need it.”
“Why are you doing this?” I ask, staring into her eyes. “You know you don’t have to.” I get no answer. Alas, I cannot pay her back right now.
After the humble breakfast, Semra speaks to me: “I’m going to the village. I’ll come back late. It will be best for both of us if I don’t find you here. We should have never met in the first place.” She adds, “I have no spare food but you can take some water.”
I spend the day resting. I’m feeling better. I want to wait for Semra and thank her. I think I might come back one day. I want to do something good for them. The kids tell me that they live alone. They have a father but they don’t know where he is. They haven’t heard from him for a long time. That’s how it is in these lands. One day you just disappear.
Before I know it, the day has slipped by. Shortly after the sun has sunk behind the horizon, Semra arrives.
“Why are you here?” She looks worried. She didn’t expect to see me.
“I wanted to thank you.”
“Fine, I got that. No need to. They’re looking for you.” Her eyes give away her anxiety. “Your men were in the village. They’ll come here too.”
In that moment, I decide what to do.
“Quick! Dig!” I leap to one of the shack’s walls and start furrowing the ground with my hands.
“Are you mad? I told you: they’re after you and they’ll soon take you away.”
“I said, dig! We have no time! It has to be as long as my body. Please!”
It takes time, but finally we’re done. And then there is the sound of a jeep engine. It’s coming nearer.
“Quick! I have to bury myself!” I turn to her. She’s ready. “Put this over my eyes before you cover my face.” I give her a piece of gauze. I bring out the tourniquet from my first-aid kit and lie down in the hole. I bite one end of the tourniquet. It has the taste of rubber, but that doesn’t matter. I scoop handfuls of sand and throw them over myself. Starting from my legs, I gradually cover my whole body.
The roaring of the approaching vehicle speeds us up. The children eagerly join in. Soon, only my face is left uncovered.
“Leave the edge of the tourniquet sticking out of the sand, just a little. Don’t forget to level the earth! There must be no sign. Don’t worry about me!” I lisp, the edge of the tourniquet between my lips.
“Fine, if that’s your wish.” Her face darkens.
I close my eyes, she puts the gauze on top, just like I asked her to. She throws sand feverishly over me. I feel the sounds of this world dying away. I hardly manage to breathe through the narrow tourniquet. Time comes to a halt. I think I’ve spent here an eternity. I’m short of air but I have no other choice. I want to be with Semra and the children.
Time has stopped.
I’ve been buried alive.
I thought they were calling someone else.
“Lieutenant! Breathe!” They remove the gauze from my eyes. I open them. A strange face hovers into my blurry sight. A woman. “You’re alive! I’ll carefully remove the ventilator from your mouth. Do not move your head!”
The hands make mysterious gestures above me. I feel the air reaching my lungs, I can breathe.
Where am I? Who are you? I think, and my mouth only wheezes.
“Do not strain yourself! I’ll call the doctor!” The woman disappears. “I repeat, don’t strain yourself! You haven’t moved for more than a month,” I catch an echo.
I try to look around. Can’t keep my eyes open. I strain to turn my head. I can’t. I’m bedridden. In the hospital. I relax, and white spirals take me up, spin me around, lift and sweep me.
“Can you hear?” a voice grounds me back to reality. “You’re in the recovery. Your machine was blown up by a direct hit.”
I can see again. An unfamiliar face hangs above me. A doctor.
“We’ve been fighting for your life for a long time but you’re out of the woods now,” he smiles. “God has brought you back!”
“Yeah, God and her two kids,” I breathe out.
“Right.” He has heard me. “God and her two kids. Just calm down and relax! It’ll take time before you’re able to tell us. Relax!”
I’ll tell them. Of course I will.
I can relax now, and I do so with relief.
P.S. Semra, wait for me! I’ll be back!
Here I am, in the waste of sand again. Me and my companion, the short shadow, with which, alas, I cannot talk. I know the way. Imaginary as it is, I can follow it. There’s the hill. I muster strength and try to hurry. Almost impossible. I’m drained, but my desire to see them is stronger than anything. The same old shack, as if pressed against the sand by the searing rays. Finally there. My last steps shuffle on the ground but somehow feel longer. I don’t knock, I know they won’t hear me. I fill my chest with air and enter. A few seconds to adjust to the dimness. The kids are here.
“Hello!” I greet them. Exhausted, thirsty but happy.
“Hi!” They’re not afraid of me. Not any more.
“Where’s Semra? She will come back, right?”
“I’ll wait.” I sit on the ground. “Some water, please! It’s been a long way.”
They offer me the familiar dirty pot. I’m thankful but I don’t drink all of it. Don’t know if they have enough.
I must have dozed off because I don’t remember the rest of the day.
“So you came back.” Semra’s standing at the threshold.
That’s it! I’ve done it.
“Yes, I did come back. I wanted to!” I proudly respond.
“Come outside, we need to talk.” She strokes her children’s heads and points at the door. “We’ll be home in a while. Wait for us inside!”
The kids nod, and we go out.
“I don’t know why you’ve done this, but it’s too late for an answer. You know where you are, don’t you?”
“Look, Semra, no-one’s waiting for me there,” I start. “It’s not what I wanted from life. I’ve done things I’m not proud of. Don’t ask, please! And don’t wave that knife at me, it won’t do you any good.”
“How did you find us?”
“I didn’t shoot myself because I didn’t know if I wasn’t going to scare you with a hole in my head.” I add wittily, “And I didn’t want to mar my pretty forehead. You like me, right?”
“Whether I like you or not, it doesn’t matter here. If you’re going to ask something, now’s the time, not in front of the children. How long are going to stay with us?”
“As long as you can stand me.”
She doesn’t respond right away, and my heart clenches into a fist.
“We’ve been here for about three years,” she finally says, “or at least that’s how they count them ‘there,’ I think. It was in the middle of the night. The air-raid sirens were still silent, but my husband and I were already awake. Fortunately, the kids were sound asleep. It was too late when we heard the whizzing of the bombs. The first one hit our house. My husband was unlucky to survive. Sometimes, things happen without any logic. I know it is hard for him to be without us. One thing’s for sure—someday we’ll be together again. I will always love him, the kids too. I called you outside to tell you: They don’t know! Every morning, I get out, like in the old days, but as you could guess, there’s no village. Or work.”
“What about the water and bread you give us? Where are they from?”
“It’s all fantasy. If you imagine that you’re in a restaurant, with tables piled with food, you’re there. If you want a yacht in the sea, you have it. Are you sure they won’t bring you back?”
“I’ve taken measures. I’m not going back! I left a letter. I didn’t mention any reasons but I won’t go back.”
“All right, if that’s what you want. Stay, but the kids must not know. They were happy in the ‘other’ life. They were snatched from it too early! Let them live it here at least!” The words choked her and she started weeping. Not eyes but two fathomless lakes stared at me from her beautiful face. Lakes of tears.
“Semra, when are you going to tell them? It’s all imaginary. If they want something else, why can’t they have it? I could—”
“No, no, no! They must not know!” She gulps. “It’s better this way. Believe me! The thought that someday they’ll ask for something and it will come true…it makes me shiver. They’ll see the truth then. I’m not ready for that. Don’t you see?” she whispers. “They’re happy ‘cause they want nothing.”
I can’t deny her words. They’re happy ‘cause they want nothing.
And still, I think, I should show them there’re other things. They deserve it, as do you, dear reader, as do I, as do we all. It takes time. And here, there’s plenty of it. I remember I used to be a patient man.
And I still am.
P.S. Semra, remember! You’re not alone!
“You’re coming with me, right?”
Her appearance speaks for itself. She doesn’t want to leave me alone with the children. Frozen at the doorstep, she waits for me.
“Sure.” I stand up. I take a towel and wind it around my head. I’m ready.
We walk long and we walk silently. Our destination: the blazing sun. Our feet sink in the burning sand. Each step is an ordeal. I clench my teeth and try not to fall behind. I slowly melt, becoming smaller and more insignificant by the minute. I have no doubts, not for a moment, that I should be here. It’s sun and sand everywhere. They merge into one.
Semra stops and waits for me. She’s looking somewhere ahead. I still don’t understand. The wind caresses our weary bodies and makes her white tunic tremble.
Oh, my vision! My gorgeous vision! I’m coming!
Panting, I try to get rid of the hot air in my lungs. I draw level with Semra, and I see.
And what I see astonishes me.
Ahead of us lies a clear pond.
I shake with a sudden impulse forcing me to dash forward. With great effort, I restrain myself and stay close to Semra.
“Mirror of the Soul,” she speaks for the first time since we’re out. “Many have heard of it, a few have found the way, and even fewer have been here.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“Didn’t you want to come to it?” She looks straight at me with her beautiful almond eyes. “If not, why have you been with us at all?”
I’m amazed and speechless. Can’t take my eyes off the water. It attracts and repels me at the same time. My legs are losing their strength and I can hardly stay upright.
“Don’t be afraid! Go and look closer!” She nudges me.
Impossible! I won’t take a single step.
“That’s why I brought you here! Everyone can say they’re sorry, but is that truly so?”
“Come on, take a look at your soul!”
I can’t take it anymore and slump to the hot sand. The lake swims before my eyes. It scatters bright sun reflections everywhere, and the contours of a huge golden crown flash before me.
“Don’t you ever come back if you don’t do this!” Semra’s words are like a dagger in my heart.
A few moments or an eternity later, I gather my strength back and stagger up. Slowly and hesitantly, I stumble forward. The lake awaits me. The bright rays that form its crown begin to disappear with each step of mine. I’m left to marvel at the clear water.
At last, I’m at the bank of the lake, and an unbearable burden bends my shoulders. I give in, close my eyes, fall on my knees. I can’t hear or see. I’m on my own.
I slowly bend forward, my palms on the burning bank. An invisible force roots my hands to the ground, and they belong to me no more. The heat quickly starts soaking into my palms, then rushes along my wrists, surging higher and higher. Scorching waves race through my elbows and like young mustangs conquer me from the inside, thoroughly. Nothing can stop them.
A globe of fire bursts inside my head. It scatters billion pieces of memories that I thought long gone. Do I want them to come together?
I’ve reached the end of the road.
I summon a few last drops of will and open my eyes.
I stare at the still surface.
It is the Mirror of the Soul.
P.S. Semra, thank you for having us here!
Is that really me? I don’t believe it. All is a lie and mirage! Please, tell me it is so! My lips hug each other. I can’t separate them. Don’t have the will to. Eyes burn, hands shake, heart thumps.
Am I able to feel pain? Yes, it hurts. Unbearably. You don’t believe it?
“Forgive me! You had to see it!” Semra has dropped down next to me. She wraps her tender arms around my quaking shoulders.
“Forgive me! I didn’t want to disturb your peace,” I sob out. I can do nothing. But I want to.
“When we first met, you looked terrible. I didn’t think we’ll see each other again. When you came back, I could hardly recognize you. It’s unbelievable, the change inside you. A long road is ahead of you.” She caresses my cheeks. “You can come whenever you need to. Look into your soul and you’ll know if you can be with us. If you think you can, you know how to change. You know the way.”
I’ll stay with you, Semra! You will accept me! I know the way and I will walk it!
I raise my head and gaze at her face.
I see through the eyes of a new-born.
Written by Alexander Beltov
Translated by Kalin M. Nenov and Ilka Chechova