Wisps of dust fell on the boy and he woke with a start. His fingers immediately clasped tightly around the gun that lay by his side. His other hand rose above his head and stopped directly in front of us eyes in order to prevent the sand from blinding him. The wooden bridge beneath which he hid trembled under the slow but continuous march of men. Fear and hatred simultaneously clawed at him, rendering him motionless for a few seconds.
They are finally here, he thought, and took deep breaths in order to calm himself.
He gathered his resolve and crept silently from beneath the bridge, the hand wielding the gun stretched out in front. The first thing that caught his eye was the uniform and his grip loosened. These men were not the enemy. These were the men of his country.
The soldiers walked silently and in rows of three. Many of them held stretchers on which lay the wounded. Their guns hung loosely from their shoulders, the nozzles pointing in the same direction in which the soldiers’ heads drooped. Their leader walked tiredly in front and didn’t utter a single word.
The boy watched them leave and couldn’t decide as to whether he was relieved or disappointed. None of them took notice of him. None of them took notice of anything. He was about to retreat back to his hiding place when he heard a loud cry of anguish from the far side of the bridge. Two soldiers had broken away from the group and were leaning over a stretcher. One of them was removing the dressing wrapped around the knee of the wounded soldier. It was only when the boy moved closer to them did he notice that the rest of the soldier’s leg was missing.
The man who was tending to the wounded soldier put some of his water in a bowl and soaked the dressing in it. As he did so, his gaze fell on the boy who by now was standing only a few meters away from them. He would have ignored his presence had he not noticed the gun in the boy’s hand. He stared at him for a few moments and then beckoned him over.
The boy hesitated at first but then relented. He strode forward until he was within touching distance of the medic. The wounded soldier continued to let out a few gasps of pain intermittently. The boy found the sound unbearable and fought the urge to run away.
The medic motioned towards the gun and the boy shook his head.
“I will give it back,” he said, trying to reassure the boy. As the boy continued to shake his head, the medic took out his own gun and offered it to him. “I just want to look at your gun closely.”
The boy finally acquiesced but not before taking the medic’s gun in lieu of his own. He held on to it tightly as the medic ran his fingers upon his gun and examined the barrel. He then gave it back to the boy.
“That is an army gun,” he said and resumed washing the dressing once more, which by now had turned the water completely red. The medic emptied the contents of the bowl, filled it with clean water and put the dressing back in. “How did you get it?”
“It is my father’s.”
“Is he alive?”
“He died many years ago.”
The medic focused his attention back to his patient and started to carefully cover the wound created by the severing of the leg. The soldier howled once again and looked towards the boy who, in spite of his reluctance, couldn’t help but stare at him.
“How old are you?” asked the wounded soldier suddenly and took the boy by surprise. His voice was coarse and his face turned red from the effort of having asked the question. The boy mumbled something but was afraid of speaking with him.
“Answer him please,” whispered the medic. “Talk. It will help him.”
The boy nodded. “I am eleven.”
“What are you doing here boy?” asked the soldier, straining his neck upwards in order to look at him. “Don’t you know that the war is lost? The enemy is on its way.”
“I am waiting for them.”
“To kill them.”
The soldier’s strength relented and his head fell back. He closed his eyes and breathed heavily while the medic continued with his work. He tried to lift his head again but failed. Instinctively, the boy crouched near him and slid his right palm beneath the soldier’s head. Their eyes met properly for the first time.
“Who did you lose in the war?” the soldier asked.
“More than one?”
“You have no family?”
“No one but me now.”
By now the medic was finished. He was about to call one of the other soldiers to lift the stretcher when the wounded soldier grabbed his hand and shook his head.
“A few more minutes,” he requested and turned towards the boy again.
“How many do you hope to kill?”
“I have four bullets. I hope I can kill four.”
“Two for each brother?”
“They were brave and strong.”
The soldier managed a smile.
“What after that? What after you kill them?”
“They will kill me,” he replied steadily and with glassy eyes. “But at least I would have avenged my brothers.”
“Who will avenge you?”
The boy didn’t answer. The medic, having waiting long enough, decided that it was time to leave. The boy stepped backwards as they lifted the stretcher and began to move.
“Go back home boy,” the wounded soldier spoke as they carried him away. “It is all a waste. There is no end to this. Death does not avenge death.”
The boy stood there and stared at the gun in his hand for a little while after they had all gone. He looked back at the arched bridge and the little place beneath it where he had been hiding. The words of the soldier and the images of his brothers clashed in his mind. Reason fought against emotion; intelligence against instinct; the cerebral versus the visceral.
He walked back towards the bridge, slid underneath and positioned himself once again.
Four bullets, he thought. Four men.
The sun was at its highest point but the bridge hid him well. Even so, he could feel the heat and it made him drowsy. But he fought the urge to sleep and waited.