A string of old trucks rattled up to the outskirts of the city. Half a dozen fit youthful men and women leapt out and gazed around. It was a post-apocalyptic scene played out at each place they stopped. They found a few knots of survivors huddled under crumbling masonry or cowering in still intact cellars. Starving, shell- shocked and hopeless, they gazed with blank eyes at the unknown people walking up to them.
“Hello, we’re from the United Nations Aid scheme. We’re here to help, you can come with us now and we’ll move you to a safe country, or if you want to stay, we’ll help you to a safe area and provide tents and all you need for temporary accommodation. As well as supplying you with basic foodstuff.”
A tall, athletic girl stepped forward, her long brown hair in a ponytail poking through from the cap she wore. She smiled and tipped her head on the side. “My name is Asher. If you’d like to relocate, I’ll show you the way.” She pointed to her colleague. “If you want to stay, this is Reuben. He’ll take your names and sort out how you can build accommodation.”
She looked into the eyes of these bedraggled, hopeless people and wondered to herself how they could ever make them whole, much less persuade them to work and look after themselves again. In the far corner of the dank cellar, she saw a young woman peering out through her disheveled hair. Their eyes met, defeated blue ones and confident brown ones. Asher smiled. “What’s your name?”
The young woman shrank back, pulling her coat around her. But she did not break eye contact. At last, in a hoarse whisper, came the words. “My name is Dorothy.” Then her eyes dropped and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Asher was pleased. At last, someone spoke. They knew it took this action to get things moving. “Pleased to meet you, Dorothy. What would you like to do? Stay here or move out?”
The bundle in the corner seemed immobile for minutes, then she raised her head, “I’ll go.”
Two other women and a man then spoke up, asking to go. Asher, nodding, indicated for them to follow her. “Come, we’ll go down to where the trucks are waiting. Dorothy, would you like to walk beside me?”
Dorothy seemed to have trouble getting up, and she clutched tightly at her coat rather than using her hands to help herself. Asher bent down and placed a hand under her elbow to help heave her upright. The little knot of people emerged from the dim light of the cellar into bright sunlight. They blinked like moles. Asher wondered how long they had been sheltering down there. The bombing had stopped days ago, but these people were stumbling and afraid. She was sure they had not noticed the cessation of hostilities. Otherwise, they would also have witnessed the ugly aftermath as the “liberators” massacred the defenders. Well, she assumed that was the case, but what if they had seen it all and then hidden here? There would be deep psychological wounds and the physical loss of homes and families. This Dorothy seemed to fall into the deeply traumatised category.
A small group followed her to the meeting place. There were pitifully few waiting to hear what the offer of relocation entailed. Asher felt sympathy for all of them, but especially for the ones she had brought, and she made sure she stayed close to Dorothy, who still clutched her coat tightly around her.
Trying to get them onto the trucks was a nightmare, especially Dorothy, who refused to let go of her coat. Two of the lads lifted her over the tailgate. She fell forward, sprawling on the floor, and cried while a strange sound came from her coat. Asher thought they had injured her and jumped in to help set her to rights and saw another pair of eyes looking out at her. The girl was clutching an emaciated puppy! Sunk in their own misery no one else had noticed, she gently pulled the coat up and winked at Dorothy.
At last, they had gathered all who wanted to move and the trucks pulled out. Once out of the city environs, they planned to stop and feed their charges. Then they would set off to the coast where there was an old warehouse which now served as a temporary shelter and a processing centre.
Asher collected a plate of food for Dorothy and she tried to sneak a little extra so the stowaway would feed as well. She led Dorothy away from the main party and seated her facing away from everyone else whose focus was internal. The luxury of food occupied their thoughts and attention.
“What are you going to do with this puppy?”
“She came to me during the worst of the bombing. My husband was away on defence duties. I was in a bomb shelter when a messenger rushed in to say he had seen my husband killed. It devastated me. We were only married for eleven months. We had known each other since school days. As I sat there numb and wanting to die also, a cold nose poked at me and I looked down. It was this puppy. It was as if it came to give me some comfort. The fighting intensified, and if the puppy weren’t with me, I would have walked out into the midst of the battle. With Yacob gone, why should I still be alive? Puppy licked my face and it was as if she had a message. Live, you have to start again. Until you came, I did not understand what I would do and I still don’t know what you are offering us.”
Asher looked at the rest and knelt beside this sad girl. “We have several options which we will offer you, but I think you would be best to take the island one. I haven’t been there personally, but my friend escorted a group there a few months ago. From her descriptions, it sounded like paradise. Of course, I am sure there are drawbacks, there always is wherever you go. I could smuggle the puppy aboard the plane for you if you choose that route. Come, the others have finished. Let me take you to the presentation.”
Dorothy listened, her heart a little lighter. She had shared about the puppy and Yacob. She chose the island option. First, they flew to an airport. Trucks lined up to ferry them to the beach where small boats waited to take them on the last leg of their journey.
Their island was one of a string in the Pacific ocean. It had once supported a thriving community, but the population had dwindled, the young men had left first wanting to find a more exciting life and shunning the old traditions of fishing and farming. It delighted the new inhabitants to discover the white beaches fringed with palm trees waving in the wind. There was an extensive coral reef making the sea calm and turquoise coloured, the water so clear the fish swimming around were visible.
The first of the new inhabitants had built reed huts for themselves. The newcomers sheltered in tents until they too could decide where to build more substantial shelters. Once everyone knew about Puppy, the name they used for the little dog, they welcomed the little animal. Dorothy could relax and take part in the activities. The fresh group had all come from the same city and started another hamlet further down the beach. They worked together to build huts. Dorothy chose a place under the trees, looking out onto the beach. Asher visited her frequently, always bringing a treat for Puppy and a little something for Dorothy, who had become quiet and withdrawn, always looking out to sea, as if waiting for someone to arrive. The others attempted to include her. Invariably she smiled but only wanted the company of Puppy.
It was nearing Asher’s time to return to collection duties rather than settling ones when she noticed Dorothy had at last put on a little weight. One evening as she strode down the beach to what she thought of as her village. Puppy surprised her by rushing up to her. She bent to pat the little dog’s head, but it skipped out of the way and ran a few steps towards Dorothy's hut. Then it stopped and looked at Asher, then ran again. “Ah, you are telling me to see Dorothy. Normally I would see the others first and then spend more time with Dorothy.” As she turned towards the other dwellings, the dog was back, this time nudging with her little wet nose. “All right, little Puppy, I’ll come and see Dorothy now.”
She entered the hut and saw Dorothy on the bed. She seemed in pain, writhing and groaning. Asher ran over to her friend, “Dorothy, what's the matter?”
The girl looked at her with enormous eyes, brimful of tears. “I don’t know, but I keep getting these terrible spasms in my tummy.”
Asher thought a moment. “Wait here. I’ll get some help.”
She explained the problem to the old lady who seemed to be the wise woman of the community. She cackled. “It’s her time I thought it would be soon.”
“What do you mean, her time?”
The old woman called to her neighbour to come with her. She turned and told the men to put water on to heat.
Asher was frantic. “Please come and help Dorothy quickly. We don’t need tea right now.”
Together they hurried to the little hut facing away from the rest of the community. The old woman went to Dorothy, “It will be all right now.”
The old women sent Asher to collect a bowl of hot water and towels while busied themselves around Dorothy. Puppy crept under the bed and whimpered or licked Dorothy’s hand if it dangled over the side of the bed.
At last, it was over. They washed Dorothy and sat her up, then handed her a bundle of towels.
She looked at the face of the baby she cradled and whispered to her son. “I’ve been waiting for you. You took your time coming home, Yacob.”