Place as Encounter: A killer and a coward

Brianna Bullen – Deakin University

The warm spring wind manoeuvred directly into the soldier’s ravaged front. The wind guided the smell of smoke to his nostrils and mildly tugged at his hair and uniform. Sweat melted down his brow and distorted his vision, doing nothing to aid him in his delirium. He forced himself forward on strained legs. One was fully functional; the other ghosted behind at a stiff, obtuse angle. An arm moved from his hunched body; coarse fabric irritated his face as he tore away sweat with it. The effort was weak, slow from blood loss. The other arm remained, compressing his stomach; blue dyed red with haphazard patterns. The wound had stopped blooming freely many minutes ago, but blood still crawled, fresh and sly, in small quantities from the congealing plug at his stomach.

What if they were still alive? He looked over his shoulder. No one was there. He’d long past the battlefield. Dead, they were all dead. He had to remind himself to calm his agitation.

After each step, the man steadied himself on the remains of the wall beside him. Bricks pressed, hard and uneven, into his side. The soldier craned his creaking neck, engrossed by the images surrounding him. Demolished buildings and the ashen remains of trees greeted him with melancholy. He looked down the remnants of a pathway, throat ravaged and straining for oxygen. He had known this place.

His dwindling vision took in the scorched grass and grove. Trees that had once formed a comforting archway had been ruthlessly hacked away by fire and blades. The survivors were mangled limbs, twisted and contorted. The wildflowers, which at this time of year should have been flowering and producing their potently sweet scent, didn’t even leave behind corpses.

Most disturbing to him were the remaining bricks at the end of the pathway; the church was no more than a ruin, its structure lost. Stained glass was broken over grass. Disorientated, hallucinating and desperate, the soldier limped down the path. He knew it well from his childhood. His mutilated body felt young again, smaller; all the pain had dissipated. The images before him moved, fractured like a flipbook, as they unified with his memory to form the one he wanted to see. Trees righted themselves, rejuvenated; leaves grew and swelled out in bursts from branches. He was free; moving down the avenue of trees protecting him with their joined arms. The sun shone brightly overhead, flowing through the gaps in the leaves and stroked his face with its warm, light fingers. The colour of the light changed as he moved closer to the church, painting his face with an array of colours as it shone through the stained glass windows. He was home! The flowers sprouted from the ground and opened up. So did his wound.

With the howl of an injured bear he fell forward and the land was dead again. Reality was a sadist. His left leg twisted upwards from the ground; his face pressed against slices of stained glass. No motion occurred for several minutes. Gradually, with the reluctance of an unresolved man, he moved. His hands fisted the grass before his head and with his remaining upper body strength, he pushed himself erect. He screamed at the pressure against his snapped leg and crawled closer towards the ruins of the church. The strewn glass was akin to flowers; coloured cyclamen pink, forget-me-not blue, tulip red. His hands travelled over the candied petals, trying to avoid their sharp edges. Using bricks for support, he hauled himself up. Blood showered freely down his stomach as he struggled to regain his balance. Its tangy scent diffused outwards.

His body shook like a faulty image projection. Twitching eyes took in the sky; peaceful blue washed out by several clouds. Clouds moulded into the shape of an eye above him: cloudy pupil, clear sky iris and two large threads of cloud twisted together to create an outline. It glared down at him, backed up by the sun. Strands frayed down from the threads, creating eyelashes that framed the eye in a half-lidded manner.

A thud; it was not his heart. His supernatural stare down ended.

Another sounded behind the ruined church wall. A scrape followed. Someone was there. The next few thuds exploded from him. Two heartbeats thundered across from each other. Raspy exhalations followed. A showdown was inevitable. He reached for his gun.

Footsteps danced parallel to each other,

One pair of legs slower, near-crippled

A rapid quickstep, two weapons drawn,

Gap in ruins, now face to face;

A killer and a coward.

The soldier was not surprised by his enemy’s youth; all men over the age of sixteen were recruited. He was surprised by the naivety of his gaze, by the boy lowering his gun back into his holster. His uniform was red; fate-chosen enemy. Did he not see him as a threat? Was his injury that horrendous?

“Pull out your gun, or I’ll shoot you unarmed.”

The boy froze. The older soldier punched him across the jaw, too weak from blood loss to do any damage. The boy—man really, man—let loose a yelp before laughing.

Grabbing hands, moving bodies,

Close together, fighting for dominance.

Punches taken; received in equal measure.

Guns redrawn, thrust outwards,

Breathing shallow, climax approaching,

Shots taken, missed opportunities,

Disappointment from one,

Relief from the other,

Cartridges empty, no target hit;

Defeated collapse.

The soldier panted on the ground. Over-exerted, he could no longer stand. Blood decorated the torn up tiles of the church beneath him as he lay on his stomach. The boy stood over him. He had to strain his body to look him in the eye.

“You shouldn’t have done that; you’re killing yourself.” The boy’s voice seemed calm and patronising.

Bile rose up within the soldier. His straining eyes scanned the boy’s face. The boy’s returning gaze was free of criticism; chiselled with genuine compassion.

“If you’re not going to finish me, just piss off.” The soldier’s throat felt iron-scraped.

The chiselling must have been permanent: the boy’s expression changed but the compassion never left. “Do you want to die? If you don’t get those wounds looked at properly you will. God! What idiot doesn’t at least try to patch an injury like that up?”

“Gee, thanks.”

The boy grimaced. “You must have lost too much blood to know what you’re doing. Here, let me have a look.”

The older soldier recoiled.

A large hand grabbed his sleeve. “You got a death wish?”

The man lashed out. “Don’t touch me! I want to live! But my internal organs feel like they’re going to slide out at any moment. I just want to enjoy my last moments alive with some peace. Thank you.” Every word was a harsh, deliberate pant as he struggled to find the words in his numb mind, and the energy to say it.

“…You’re an asshole.” The boy sighed and ran a hand through what was left of his hair. “Didn’t mean to interrupt. Enjoy dying.”

“What are you even doing here?” An irrational accusation latched onto him. “Did you do this?”

He choked. “What? Are you asking if I razed this place? Nope. Don’t know who’s done it, sorry. Why? Is this place important to you?”

The soldier nodded; face grim.

“Hometown, isn’t it? I understand. Mine’s gone, too.” The boy jumped down and sat beside his body, giving his back a thump of sympathy; the soldier’s teeth grinded.

“What’s your purpose for being here? You desert your unit or something? Coward.”

“You’re pretty much giving up and choosing to die and you’re calling me a coward?” He slowed down the last half of his sentence, as though grappling with an impossible existential concept.

“Answer my question.”

A boisterous grin slit open his face. “Yeah, cowardice. It’s kept me alive this long.”

His grin trembled as he let out a mirthless laugh. “I guess if any one finds me, I’m screwed though. But then, you are too.”

“There was no one left on the battlefield when I went. Everybody’s dead.”

Dictating silence ruled the following minutes. “Just kill me. We are enemies, you know. It’d be a mercy.” His stomach pulsated and wretched with every strained breath, each word was an agony.

The boy pondered. “Technically, we are on different sides in a war. But I don’t want to kill you. It’s pointless and I don’t want to dirty my hands. I don’t know you enough to hate you—although I think you’re a bit of a prick.”

“The thought’s mutual.” They shared a tight-lipped smile.

“Heck, I honestly don’t even know what started this war.” The boy looked away and began tracing the cracked brickwork of the ruined wall.

“It was a burger.”

The boy gave him a flat look before erupting into laughter. “What the heck?”

“I think of war as a burger, made up of a number of unhealthy things and held together by an overall cause—the bun. In this war, the bun was consumerism and a poor economy, the meat class and country tension, and then initial conflict lettuce covered in dollops of nationalistic sauce.” He was slurring almost incomprehensibly as he spoke.  The soldier couldn’t even hold his dizzy head up to look at him.

“But lettuce isn’t unhealthy. Wait. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Shit, that wound’s doing a number on your sanity. Either that or you’re really hungry.”

“My stomach’s been almost torn open. I think I feel my stomach juices pouring out. I don’t think I’m hungry.” His vision and words were failing him and he ended in a whisper.

They stayed together in silence from then on. The boy rolled the soldier onto his back, allowing him to watch the sky. The ghastly eye had faded away into blue.

***

Brianna Bullen is a Deakin University student with a passion for creative writing. She is a feminist, gaming enthusiast; and lover of British comedies, Pink Floyd, anime, science fiction, and modern poetry. She aspires to be a screenwriter—perhaps a greater aspiration than her childhood dream of becoming a Yoshi.