Boyhoods Lost to This Endless War

"Campfire Outside Valdorros," a short story by Julian Zabalbeascoa

Boyhoods Lost to This Endless War

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Campfire Outside Valdorros

The boy should be in a robe ringing altar bells or chasing a tattered and dust-covered ball through an equally ragged plaza or searching in a mirror for his first whisker, but somebody’s given him a uniform and a rifle and the idea he belongs here with us. The white poplars creak and sigh—a haunting language—while the flames of the campfire dance in the boy’s agitated eyes. He pinches the nub of a cigarette. A few of his teeth have already rotted, black and splintered. Through the poplars is the moon. It casts a silver light upon their thin and groaning tops, and, as if somebody elbowed him to explain his presence among us, the boy begins:

“My father didn’t run. The fascists surrounded the village. He changed from his suit so we could bury him in it, kissed my mother, told me and my two younger brothers we were now the men of the house, then stood by the door, smoking, waiting for their lorry. It startled the fascists, how, with his shoulders back, he stepped out to meet them. A few must have been hoping for a fight. One grabbed me by the arm. I stiffened my spine, too, but another said, ‘Leave him, he’s only a child.’ When they pulled away that’s when my mother collapsed, like she’d been struck behind the knees. She was crying, screaming something, but I was already out the door for the gravel pit. That’s where they’d taken the other group a few days earlier. A soldier was posted as a sentry on the road. I didn’t have time to go around him, so I nodded and wished him a pleasant evening. He was too confused to respond. Their smartest don’t guard the roads. The second I was in the shadows I was sprinting again. They’d parked by the pit’s edge. The fascists stood before the headlights, passing around bottles. My father was seated closest to the tailgate. He shook his head and chuckled when he saw me, an expression like so this was the best my seed could produce. The fascists glanced back occasionally, but the headlights were in their eyes. I untied my father and helped him free the others. ‘Now go,’ he told me. I tried to say it was no use, that a guard had seen me. ‘I’m joining the fight,’ I started, but he slapped me, a quick soundless pop on the lips. ‘Go,’ he shouted as a whisper. To the men he said, ‘We give him a minute, then we run.’ From a distance, I watched my father and the others escape, and I followed them through the night. They were going to reunite with Manolo’s Division along the Arroyo de San Juan. The birds could have told you the division had recently regrouped along the bent elbow of that river. Each stone between Carrascal del Río and Valle de Tabladillo knew it. Clouds took the shape of an arrow every few hours and pointed to their camp. So, through the trees, I counted the lorries of fascists as they barreled past. Countries have sent fewer to conquer foreign lands. By the time I reached the river, it was almost over. Only my father and another remained. That soldier hadn’t counted his bullets properly. He was rolling fallen comrades off their weapons, pushing the barrels to his head, but they’d all been emptied. He was determined to rob the fascists of the pleasure. Finally, he palmed a large stone. As for my father, the fascists encircled him, tightening notch by notch like a garrote, until he was out of bullets. They took their time with him. Time I had to get closer, from one tree to the next. I saw each of them so clearly.” The boy examines the last of his cigarette, tries to pull smoke from it but draws nothing so flicks it into the fire. “Should they get scarred, grow a beard, lose half their face to a bomb, I’d still recognize them.”

There will be no end to this thing. That’s the bitter brew. The boy’s going to live long enough to sire a few sons who will watch helplessly as fascists drag him toward a lorry, and on and on it will go.

Isidro passes the boy a crumpled pack of cigarettes. The war had, at some point, torn two fingers from Isidro’s left hand. But eight remain. You only need a thumb and finger to squeeze a trigger. Many yet still to lose. And, afterwards, you might think it would fall to our disembodied limbs to go at the others’, carrying on our noble fight, but, no—I saw early this morning, the stars still out, how it ends.

In the dream, a bullet caught me, clean through the neck. My last thought was, so long I’ve been waiting for you, I thought you’d never show. Then I was above my body, watching it curl like a fetus and sink into the earth. My skin melted away, then my organs. I was bones joining with the bones of our ancestors, and together we coiled and became a ladder that twisted amidst a starless space, and from the infinite depths of the darkness beyond I didn’t feel God necessarily but judgment. We were fucked. We were terribly, irrevocably fucked. I awoke with a start, grabbed hold of my fleeing breath, my galloping heart, then searched for a comfortable position so as to fall back asleep. What else was there to do? The lions long ago locked and loaded their rifles while the lambs have nothing stockpiled. Arm in arm, we go marching to the end.

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