I had planned, we had planned in case of trouble, that we would meet here. It is a root cellar on the old farm. It is built into a bank, and but for the door, invisible. It is its protective facilities that we considered, when deciding on a meeting place.
The first military vehicles arrived about a week ago. They come and go, so we didn’t pay an abnormal amount of attention to their presence. But after a week, and the continued addition of troops, we began to worry that something out of the ordinary was about to happen.
The government here has been, I would say with confidence, unstable. The continuing power grab has escalated of late to encompass amassing local militias into an army. Both camps have engaged in similar recruitments, resulting in what now amounts to, two opposing forces.
We met four days ago to devise a plan in case what appeared to be the inevitable occurring, did occur. By we, I mean my family. I live with my parents, my brother, and a sister. My brother is a police officer and has access to information not available to the general public. He was the one that drew our attention to the buildup of government troops and the increased evidence of opposition forces. My sister is a word merchant. A newspaper columnist devoted to what is left of democracy. She is in hiding. I have attempted to convince my parents to join her.
We are familiar with the repercussions of war. Many refuges have made it to the outskirts of our town in an attempt to escape the escalating bid for power. I have met several of the newcomers and have listened to their descriptions of how the war absorbed their district and spread in a northerly direction. We are located some hundred miles north of the area they escaped from.
They told me of the atrocities being heaped on the people by both sides. The anti-government forces seeking food and shelter, taking what they wanted. The government forces destroying anything, and anyone suspected of aiding the rebel forces. The people who cared little for either philosophy were the recipient of the upheaval to life war causes. Their homes were bombed by both factions, and they were enticed to take a side or be killed, as they were not to be trusted to remain neutral.
The first explosions came early this morning before first light. The skyline was alive with blooms of iridescent light as the petroleum storage area was bombed. The adjoining electric generating facility was next. The sparks rained down as the city went dark. The lights here went out shortly after the last explosion.
We have prepared our root cellar with oil lamps, food, and bedding. Our furniture consists of sleeping tables which double as beds. We have stuffed some potato sacks with straw and used them for mattresses of sorts. Pillows are flour bags filled with clothing. Our food stash is mainly canned food, some squash and potatoes that keep in a cool dark climate for long periods of time. Carrots we buried in sand buckets. We believed we had prepared adequately and felt secure in the efforts we provided, and the secure remoteness of our bunker.
My parents having left, are to stay with my sister who lives a few hundred miles away, farther north, and as of yet, have been involved in the tug of war over the control of the oil reserves in the area. My brother is to meet me when the war consumes the city.
I came to the cellar after the lights disappeared. The skyline, once a spectacle of disturbed brilliance, now dark and unimaginative as death itself. I had not occupied our shelter for any time previously. I had moved things in but had always left the door open. The air inside is laced with an acrid smell of decay and a dampness that clings to everything it touches. There are people escaping the city and in need of whatever they can find or take. I have fashioned a plank that when placed into the iron brackets on either side of the door provide added security. It also gives the enclosure an accentuated feeling of doom.
Explosions, and the gaps in the doors boards provided the only light available from the exterior. Air comes in through a vent from above, not that the door would do much of anything to keep out the elements, of the exterior environment. Flashes of light find their way to the interior as the bombs explode above and around my compound.
I wait for several hours, expecting my brother to appear. I can see only what is visible from the slits in the doors surface. We had agreed upon a means of identifying ourselves should we find ourselves waiting for the other to appear. As I wait and listen, I begin to feel the situation beginning to affect my interpretation of events.
I begin to imagine all sorts of noises becoming things that I know rationally, aren’t what I imagine them to be. I hear voices on occasion, but they move on, and then quiet. The explosions have lessened as the morning wares on. The train that has become a daily occurrence during normal times, no longer sounds its haunting scream. I thought I might have imagined wrongly the time, and it would certainly arrive, but it has not.
I watch the light grow faint and there is no indication that my brother has left the city and is making his way towards me.
Dark follows the afternoon wind, that carries the sulfuric smell of explosives into my cave. I have neglected to bring anything to occupy myself with. The books I had planned to bring, remain on the desk in my room. There would be time later, there was always an excuse not to believe in the probability of war.
I lay on the bed planks. The blanket smells of mildew and feels damp. It seems as though instead of providing a means to remain warm, it is stealing the heat from me. The night drags on in discomfort as I wait; wanting to sleep but fearing too.
I am awakened by a pounding on the door. A voice asking to be let in. I do not recognize the voice and remain silent. Whoever it is finally leaves. If it had been my brother, he would have whistled as we had planned. We had laughed at our choice of recognition as each of us were terrible at it.
I begin to let my imagination imply, what has delayed him. He’s been unable to leave, captured perhaps, killed by the advancing army. But he is to aware to be trapped in a situation he cannot escape from. It is what he claims makes him a good policeman. “Knowing the people, their customs, and beliefs. It provides a map of their minds, how they think," I remember him telling me that, when I'd asked if he were not afraid when going into some of the situations where he was needed.
I must have fallen asleep. I am awakened by the sound of shelling, not far off. The light begins to erupt from the trees. It must be morning. I have been imprisoned now for one entire...it feels more like.... I am disturbed by my new environments ability to distort my previously undisputed facts of a past. My previous acceptance of everything, now challenged.
Things however, do not change. My brother fails to appear, and the stream of dislocated, grows in number. I can see out just enough to watch as dozens work their way through the orchard's trees. A couple more visitors attempt to enter my cellar, but soon move on. I am tempted to answer their pleas but remember what my brother has warned about; the mental state of those forced into only a hope of survival, more dangerous than a trapped animal. He’s been in the army and worked in a few of the camps in the areas where the war had stalled. I take his suggestions more as commands than requests.
After a few days, I assume it has been a few days, I begin to lose track of time. I begin to doubt the light I believe I am seeing is an adequate indicator of day or night. The quiet can not be associated with the time of day. Muffled explosions arrive erratically, and disappear as quickly.
There is an old calendar on one of the storage shelves. The numbered days I am sure have no relevance to the present day, but what does it matter. I attempt to remember how many days I have been secluded and can’t. I know only yesterday, or believe I do, and today. So I place a mark on what I choose to be Friday. I know the explosions began on a Monday, so guess at the present date.
Four days according to what I can reconstruct of the time.
I slip in and out of a form of consciousness, some real, others similar to being in a dream, where explosions cause me to laugh hysterically, and sunsets make me break down in tears.
On what I believe the tenth day of my calendar, there is a pounding once again on the door. I remain in the corner covered by my blanket, refusing to respond. Soon the quiet returns. The exterior vent is made of metal and when it rains, I can hear it pelting the cover. Some nights, days…I find the noise a calming distraction. Other times it sounds like bursts of gun fire.
I must have slept again. When I wake, I realize that the calendar I had left on the shelf is soaked. Water has come through the vent. The pages are stuck together, and the ink has meld into a pool of blurry colors. I begin to cry, a loneliness I have never felt previously, possesses me.
When you have nothing, everything, no matter how small or insignificant, appears to be of the utmost importance. I feel the loss I expected, like my brother and family have died. I had a record of ten days, perhaps more, perhaps less, but a record, and now it is gone.
I, for the first time in my life, consider my own mortality. Alone, in a darkness I do not know, confused as to how I got here, and knowing I played no part in wanting to inhabit this space. Although I did not ask to be here, I am nonetheless, here.
The choice at that point is no longer really mine. I can feel the suppression of the ages, fleeing in an attempt to survive. Hope is but a dream. Reality has pinned me to the floor with the same boot that kicked my grandfather, and his before him.
When hope leaves it is replaced by choice. The opportunity to take one path or another, after having weighed the probable outcomes. It is then that I realize there is only one thing to do, and that is fight. Not physically contesting my right to life, as I have none. But fight for freedom.
Not becoming part of the turmoil, leaves only the option of contributing to the possibility of aiding those, like myself, who realize there are worse things than dying. Giving back a gift is no solution, but passing it on is.
The next pounding on the door finds me face to face with a person who looks like me. Frightened, alone, and having forgotten that even though we did not ask for the gift we live, we have an obligation to be generous, while asking nothing in return.
When the cell door slams, an echo of the millennium that preceded me, causes me to realize that humanity, although often derailed by individuals who have forgotten the responsibility of their gift, and find solace only in mine, will not perish from respect, but from the lack of it.
When lives are lost and environments crippled, some, not all, find that opening the door and stepping into the light allows one to see more clearly. Although I did not ask for my gift, I have the responsibility to care for it, and provide a future in which it is able to survive. A time to sew, and a time to reap.