We huddle in groups, centred around the abandoned farmhouse – it hasn’t been abandoned long, dishes still in cupboards, even scraps of food remaining. Most of the area immediately around us is sheltered by pine forest, some of the men camping out there, drinking heavily in denial of the impending invasion. Beyond the stand of trees stretches a sparse tundra, dead crops swaying desolately in the wind. At least we’ll see them coming a mile off.
Warning had already been sent to us. Some of us are packing to leave – Rajat, a gentle Indian family-man, has secured his children in the small truck. He knows that the warning, the fearful tale of an approaching army, is no scare tactic to drive us into the open. For the rest, the uncertainty is enough to keep them from following suit, from acknowledging the all-too-real threat that we are facing.
Having secured the children in the vehicle, he returns and steps inside. Unsure but needing to say something, to somehow pay respects to this comradeship that has developed between us, I follow him. After scouring the empty interior of the lounge room, he turns to me, contemplative.
Saying anything seems pointless – we’ve all seen to much to give into lies and pointless platitudes now. Instead, he sweeps me into a tight hug, and, for a moment, he is my father, my brother, my friends. He is all those whom I am never again going to see, not in this lifetime.
His parting gift is in an unfamiliar language, but the meaning transcends the language, and he quietly recites his prayer;
Shaantam padmaasanastham shashadharamakutam panchavaktram trinetram, shoolam vajram cha khadgam parashumabhayadam dakshinaange vahantam; naagam paasham cha ghantaam damaruka sahitam chaankusham vaamabhaage, naanaalankaara deeptam sphatika maninibham paarvateesham namaami.
My own prayer seems clumsy and childish in response, but my meaning is genuine. I hope, more than anything, that he will get out of this, that there is a chance… I hope that there is any hope at all. Yet as we release one another, there is a sense of loss that I can’t help but fear is disproportionate. But these are terrible times, and in the face of such terror we cannot help but to cling together.
I stand beside another of our small – and shrinking – number, Cullen, and we silently watch Rajat’s quiet, somber farewell to his wife. The vehicle, the only one that we have, is too small to accommodate them all, and her resolute stoicism is both heart-breaking and humbling.
Cullen turns away, unable to watch, perhaps thinking of his own lost love; “At least some of us are getting out of here.”
As soon as the words are voiced aloud, my vision flashes, as I see the superimposed image of the certain outcome of this endeavour. The knowledge and grief paralyse me for a moment, and I crouch, hands planted firmly in the red dust, eyes on the ants trailing beneath my feet.
“They won’t make it.”
The images may have been vague, but the words escape subconsciously, and I know, instinctively, that they are true.
“Why the hell don’t you warn him?” Cullen’s eyes have widened, as he looks torn between disbelief in the possibility that I could know this, and the even more unconfortable knowledge that I am right.
I look towards Rajat, and our eyes meet, and once again I feel disconnected from my body; it is the burning in my eyes and the cold, heavy weight of sadness in my stomach that brings me back.
“Because he already knows.”
And as his wife comes to stand beside us; and as the truck rumbles into the distance; and as the dust begins to rise, swell, settle; and as the ominous sound of distant marching armies begins to deafen us, I cannot help but wonder if we have any choices left to make…
And whether we had any choice to begin with.
Author’s notes: this is actually a dream I had last night, which was far more vivid than I could ever hope to represent with words. The prayer Rajat recited is a semi-petition to Lord Shiva, and, especially in this context, is uttered for protection. I guess the main point of this dream was that in the end, even when you know it’s futile, there is nothing left but to try. Incidentally, I looked up what the name “Rajat”, and it means “courage”.