★ ★ ★ ★
Image by Remi Bertogliati
As our platoon marched through a dense forest, our footsteps over the brittle leaves on the dried land echoed the whispers carried by the cooling wind. Coming out of the woods, we encountered heavy air with the scent of charred wood and burned debris. A faint smell of smoke still lingered, mingling with the fragrance of slowly rejuvenating soil. Walking toward the village, there were houses lying in ruins, reduced to blackened skeletons with scorched walls and collapsed roofs. Remains of household belongings scattered across the ground.
An eerie silence hung between us. We moved through the wreckage and spotted signs of the villagers’ desperate attempts to salvage what little they could. A doll with singed hair lay in the street next to burned wooden market stalls. Family photos were framed in cracked glass, broken luggage containing personal objects were left behind, and shattered bookshelves held the remnants of charred books.
“The authors must feel suffocated.” I thought to myself.
On a crumbling wall, I saw a sentence written in charcoal, “He’d bravely go through fire and smoke, he’d die for you.” * I felt my stomach churning.
Several weeks ago, the night this area was set ablaze, my platoon was stationed not far away from here. Rumble of aircraft engines overhead caused tremendous tension first, then showers of sparks erupted in the deafening roars of bombardment. I have no idea how many people were living here before the war, whether the villagers had been evacuated before the air raids or not, or where they had gone.
We withdrew, survived, launched counterattacks, and came back. On the roadsides, tender green shoots of feather grass began to push through the earth, reaching for nurturing sun rays. Here and there one or two violet asters swayed slightly in the breeze. A snail crawled upon a sprout of siskiyou lewisia.
Among the desolate ruins, a delicate figure caught our attention. A small, ginger cat emerged from the shadows, cautiously stepping over debris and ash. Its once vibrant orange fur was now streaked with soot. The cat’s green eyes met ours, and we stopped walking. Was it frightened, hopeful, or angry? Sergeant Olek carefully approached it and crouched down. He extended a hand to it, and seeing the kitty wasn’t flinching, he gently stroked its fur. The feline was left with a little canned tuna and bread crumbs, and we moved on.
“Please don’t write to me of the war,
Tell me instead of the gardens around.”
“Tell me about the words people use
To name their cats in far away nations.”** I hymned to myself.
An idea suddenly dawned on me. I jogged back to the wall with a fragment of an old poem and smudged it word by word. On the ground I found a piece of charcoal and wrote over the wall with my own lines, imagining that not long later the villagers would read them when they came back to rebuild their homes.
In the coming dusk, the chirping of a grasshopper resonated in the air. And as I ran back to rejoin my platoon, the refreshing autumn drizzle started to fall.
* From “The Paper Soldier”(1959) by Soviet-Russian poet Bulat Okudzhava, translated from Russian by Alec Vagapov.
** From “To My Daughter”(2022) by Ukrainian poet Pavlo Vyshebaba when he served in the military. The English translation was done by Anhelina Yurkiv. https://krytyka.com/en/articles/to-my-daughter
C J. Anderson-Wu (吳介禎) is a Taiwanese writer who has published two collections about Taiwan’s military dictatorship (1949–1987), known as the White Terror: Impossible to Swallow (2017) and The Surveillance (2020). Currently she is working on her third book Endangered Youth—to Hong Kong. Her short stories have been shortlisted for a number of international literary awards, including the Art of Unity Creative Award by the International Human Rights Art Festival. She also won the Strands Lit International Flash Fiction Competition, and the Invisible City Blurred Genre Literature Competition.