The White Light

by Cornelius Pyke

Preface

Living in the ruins of a war-torn town, a woman awaits her fate.


She looked at him over a glass of pomegranate juice, which was purple with dark pips. A glass held in such delicate hands. He hadn't seen hands so fine, so clean, in so long a while. His own hands were damaged; dirt lay under the nails, cuts that had not healed. The cuts were from barbed wire, pieces of metal, fragments of glass, rubble. Everything in the world was shattered, it seemed to him. All was broken. What had once been familiar now lay in segments so that nothing was whole. The idolatrous image of a statue in one of the city squares, blown off its pedestal, now in pieces: a trunk of stone here, splayed legs there, still attached to the plinth, and several yards distant, a dignified profile, separated from all else.

            'What do you do?' she asked.

            'What did I do,' he corrected. 'I worked in a fast food bar, cooking chicken.' He remembered the headlamps of the cars at night, all sounding their horns, queueing on the ring road below. And on their rotary spits, the glazed chickens browning.

'How long has it been since you ate chicken?' he asked.

            She shrugged and sipped the pomegranate juice. The bangles slipped from her wrist down her forearm, which was fine and slender like bone.

'And you live alone? Here?'

'I don't know where my husband is, or if he's alive. I don't know where my children are. I hope they are safe. God willing.' She looked at him. His clothes were covered in dust, his beard untrimmed. He was young, she decided, but it was hard to tell how young. 'How long has it been,' she asked, 'since a barber trimmed your hair?'

He laughed and said something, but whatever he said was lost in the crash of an explosion nearby. A vibration shook the table.

'Can you stand it?' he asked.

'I am used to it.' She got up and walked to the corner of the room. 'I would offer you something else,' she said. 'Some tea, perhaps, but there is no electricity.' She took a packet from a cupboard and crumpled it in her hand. 'And there is no tea.' She dropped the packet on the floor.

'Is it true,' she asked, 'that if you're killed by a drone you don't see or hear it?'

He laughed. 'How should I know?'

Later, there was another explosion, and plaster fell from the ceiling like a shower of rain or the sound of paper ripping.

'I think we should go downstairs,' he said. 'We're too high up here.'

'As you please,' she said. Then, on what had been the landing, 'There's no light, I'm afraid. You'll have to feel your way down. But be careful. There's rubble.'

She wondered if he remembered coming up here, when she brought him, two, or was it three days ago. On one of her rare ventures out to look for food, there he was, lying in the dust on a street corner with no-one about. He had no weapon with him and at first she thought he was dead. But then he moved, turned his head and looked up at her, eyes squinting against the sun.

            He descended two flights of stairs behind her and as they turned a corner in the staircase he saw her in the moonlight, where the wall had been blown away. She moved very well, he thought, like a cooking pot, a cast iron cooking pot swinging from a chain above a fire. It took him a moment or two to clear his head of these thoughts.

On the second floor landing, she jingled a set of keys.

'It's not much,' she said, opening the door. 'Why don't you sit down?'

Light from a window entered the room. The only place to sit was a mat on the floor.

'Go on,' she said. 'Sit. Are you hungry?'

'I am,' he said, thinking about chickens, whole chickens, browning on a spit, 'but there's nothing to eat.'

She smiled at him,' Ah,' she said, 'but I have been keeping something from you.'

He did not move, just sat with his arms around his knees and watched her. She went to a corner and unrolled another mat. Then she took out a package wrapped in paper and opened it. 'You can have some flat bread, if you like.'

'Where did you get that?'

'From the bakery, before the baker and his family left. It's old. Quite hard. Feel it.'

She passed it to him, and it felt as hard as stone, but he tore it in two and handed half back to her. She sat down on the mat opposite him and stared at his boots. They belonged out of doors, she thought, heavy boots that climbed over rubble, and did not look right on the mat.

'This is perfect,' he said, chewing on the bread. 'I feel as if I have stumbled into a small patch of sunlight on a grey afternoon.' Opposite him, she was no more than a silhouette against the pale luminescence of the window without a curtain.

He had not been wounded in any way that she could tell. There was no blood on him that she could see, and he moved quite freely. Her best guess was that he had been caught in a blast that left him unconscious. Whoever he had been with, whatever group, had simply left him where he lay, maybe thinking he was dead. She didn't enquire.

When the time came to sleep, he lay on his back near the edge of the mat. She lay on her side, her body as thin as a knife blade, and kept the middle of the mat as an empty space between them. He fell to slumber quite quickly and she could hear the rhythm of his breathing. She could hardly sleep at all and as a consequence the night seemed to go on and on.

Singing reached her from down on the street, a strange song sung by a lone voice. Then silence again.

'Are you curious about me?' he suddenly asked, from out of the darkness.

'Wow, you made me jump. I thought you were asleep. No, not curious.'

'Don't you worry about my intentions, about what they might be?' He had rolled over onto his side to face away from her, and was speaking to her over his shoulder. 'Only, I want to give you my reassurances in that regard.'

'Go back to sleep.'

He yawned. 'I plan to leave in the morning.'

In a distant part of the city, another explosion, a bigger one, this time, though from further off. Like an air strike. Or an improvised device.

'What will you do?' he asked.

'What am I supposed to do?'

'It's not up to me to say. You can do what you like.'

She had drawn herself up into a ball, small and thin and ragged, fleshless almost, like a mummified ancient burial from out in the desert. When they examined the contents of the stomach, now no more than a collapsed leather bag, they found maize and pomegranate seeds. They pieced together shards of Mesopotamian pottery and made inventories of grave goods. They looked at the teeth to estimate the age.

'I'll come back and look for you,' he said, 'and I'll take you somewhere safer. How about that?'

'You won't find me. I'll be gone.'

From where he lay, he could see beyond the darkness, out of the uncurtained window to the city, where the sky seemed bright, as if someone had sent up a flare. He craned his head. There was the moon, risen fully over the eastern suburbs.

'And anyway, I don't believe you'll come back,' she said.

'I will. I swear on the moon. You see it out there?'

He heard her give a low laugh in the darkness. 'The moon is for women to swear on. It doesn't work for men. Swear on something else.'

He waited a long moment before he replied. 'I swear on my life.'

She said nothing. He closed his eyes to doze, but as his mind slipped away, he saw again the toppled statue in the square. Only this time, it was not fragments of masonry that lay strewn about, but fragments of bone. He saw body parts. Wet viscera congealing in dust, like discarded giblets from the fast-food chicken. There had been a dismemberment. His eyelids flicked open as if on springs and his body gave a shallow lurch.

'What is it?' she asked dreamily. 'What's the matter?'

'Nothing. Nothing's the matter. Go back to sleep.'

Across the city, gunfire. An automatic weapon letting off a short burst that seemed oddly unconnected with anything else. It sounded the way a fox or stray dog might howl on a hot night. Certainly, it didn't seem to concern them.

'Promises,' she suddenly said. 'What are promises?'

He thought that perhaps she was dreaming. He fell asleep again an hour before dawn. When he woke, he lay and listened to more smallarms fire across the city. Coming more frequently now.

He sat up and tugged on his boots. She watched his narrow back through the thin shirt. Then he rose from the mat and reached inside his shirt, with his dirty damaged hand. 'Here, take this.'

She sat up to see what he was offering her. Food, she thought, a piece of fruit he had been keeping hidden. But no, it was a blue eye on a leather string. 'It'll protect you,' he said, 'until I can come back and get you.'

Seeing her hesitate, he added. 'I'll take you to a camp on the border, as soon as the road out of town is clear.' He dangled the charm in front of her. 'Take it.'

'You'll need it yourself.'

'I want you to have it. It's a token of my promise to you. My promise to come back.'

She took it. 'I will pray for you, then,' she said. 'That you may return safely.'

She watched him out of sight down the stairs, then went to the window.

After a moment, he emerged onto the street below. He looked back, as if by instinct, and waved up at her. Hanging half out of the window, she waved back. She watched him go across the ruined square. He didn't turn round to look at her again, but broke into a loping run and disappeared around the corner.

When he had quite gone, she turned from the window back to the room. The carton of pomegranate juice from the night before lay on its side on the floor. She picked it up and shook it, but it was quite empty. The room gradually resumed its former identity - a place where she lived alone, where others did not come. She remembered how, for a time, the room had been brought to life, became a living place because of a stranger's presence. The room had absorbed him, tolerated him and, now he had gone, it very quickly reduced him to a distant object. She saw how everything around her had its own nature, and how that nature would always resurface in the end. The room was meant for solitude, grew its own silences, its own stillnesses.

The drone strikes became so commonplace that she barely noticed them, unless one hit particularly near. She imagined that if one fell on her building, or what was left of it, it would be like walking into a wall of white light, then disappearing from the earth. She was unable to decide whether she would see or hear the strike she foresaw killing her. But she knew it would come from a man sitting at a computer screen thousands and thousands of miles away. A man for whom killing had never been more than a video-game. Like Call of Duty. Killing with impunity. No need even for a pang of conscience since he did not see what he was killing. He would not see her, as she hid in her ruined apartment. Maybe he would have popped out from his control room to grab himself some lunch. Maybe he would be drinking from a can of Coke and eating a shop-bought sandwich, still chilly from the refrigeration unit, as he homed in on her. No doubt he would have a safe home to go back to when his shift was done. A family who had not been killed.

The carton of juice was empty and the flatbread gone. The man who had briefly been her companion did not come back when he said he would.

One morning, she took the evil eye and stowed it in a little box and buried it in the rubble in the corner of the room. When the white light came, it was not enough to protect her.

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