It was summer in England and all the leaves dripped with a wintery-grey light. Time moves slowly in high densities, so the passing of it was a laborious, stolid event. There were too many options: the laptop, the PlayStation, the phone and the freedom represented by the pile of bank cards on the bed made her feel confused, pulled this way and that. She was packing for something she had agreed to do without thinking - as was the case with many things - in a place that she had thought would be snowy but was apparently hot, working on a project to commemorate some people who had died a long time ago.
She was irritable and distant before she left. While the devices and options that powered the wasted time were unremarkable, they were safe and familiar. On the plane a little girl with her thick black hair in plaits careered up and down the gangway, and the stale air filtered in and out of lungs as they piled the plane food into their mouths.
The destination was European, the only notable difference being the language with its symbols resembling archaic farmers’ tools. A long journey on a coach ensued, during which she spoke at length with her neighbor about how to pass the time. The conversation was one of vague mutual interest, and while she fought to respond her attention was sometimes tugged at by the smatterings of gravestones all along the road.
The town looked like a picture of itself on a television screen – it had all the washed out walls and little warm-climate plants of a documentary about a place far away. There were bullet holes in the walls, and she couldn’t quite believe that they weren’t on the set of a film. Everything was rendered in the technicolor blur of experiencing a life that isn’t yours; the vicarious feel of the biographical, the vivid account.
They walked to where they were staying. By now night was descending on the earth, and life flickered in the greenery. The woman who opened the door spoke no English but hugged each of them deeply, like a close relative welcoming her kin. After an unpacking that consisted on the territorial spilling of products on surfaces, they were driven through the darkness to eat. The food warm air made her feel full, so she drank far too much and danced well into the night.
She awoke groggy and annoyed, and resented the apparent urgency of the day to begin. The fact that everything looked different made it seem unnecessary. There was breakfast which she declined, but cigarettes cheap enough to make a Westerner drool and so she sat, pulling the smoke into her mouth and lungs, until a woman in a steel-grey shirt made some announcements about their work. The information sounded useful but it was easier to look at the vivid cracks in the walls or the swerving of the great, black insects.
At lunch they explored the town. There were houses, every third or fourth a burnt husk, perching in on each other so every new turning presented little clusters of dwellings that seemed to be comforting themselves. They were presented with the shortcomings of the landscape; and she was annoyed, and so made frequent count of how many hours remained until she could return to her chic boudoir, away from the scorpions and the snakes and the landmines.
She past the time at a distance, meditating on the problems back home which seemed to stick out even more sorely when seen from this distance. Once, they went swimming in a clear lake and with a morbid, detached curiosity she checked the river-bed for teeth or scraps of bone. All around but only dimly nudging her sensibility was the notion that there was some history to be found here, but, like all history, it seemed impregnable. One of the days it was suggested that she visit the memorial site, for all those people who died a long time ago. A dusty car arrived as transport, and drove her through little towns that looked like model villages.
After some time, seen through a fence whose vertical white bars made it seem like a mirage as they were swept past, were thousands of white stones which rose in waves. They evoked a majestic beauty of beauty, and only the vestiges of death. As she stepped out she could hear the undulating rhythms of a fountain and feet on the pathways. But she was led not left, but right through a gap in the traffic and then an even smaller gap in a chain link fence. She walked in silence through a warehouse district, and suddenly the world behind seemed stifled. Smashed windows lost their dystopian thrill and hung like old, black wounds in the brickwork. It was irrevocably clear like something immense had been felt here, and though the structures and the landscape lay dormant a corrugated stench hung heavy in the air.
She was marched to an echoing gallery. The sides were neatly adorned with pictures and captions. She surveyed the first few with the self-conscious stance of the tourist, inoculated against history by her status as a voyeur. But as she moved around the room something broke inside her, and she was torn open and stood, unprotected in the deluge of what was pouring from the tears in the wall.
And she forgot, intermittently, to check herself, and cried with the other lonely travelers who understood now more than ever that the world was bad. She moved beyond her own mind, and saw women torn from their children, when all they had opted to do was shield them from evil and hurt, and they had failed but everything had failed intrinsically, and nature had begotten nature and caused a huge rift in itself, giving humans the ability to rend the fabric of what they were made of.
She went home that night and shivered in a ghostly room; the poor light lent the walls an endless quality and she felt like she was floating in some ether-world. The gentle sound of her friends’ breathing made her wonder how people could ever sleep again, and for the first time in her life she understood that people could kill each other. That night she dreamt she saw her father’s face, butchered and bleeding, and woke abruptly with an intense longing to see her family, and to hold them while they lived and breathed, as that was no longer something which was guaranteed. She felt alive with a terror, and tip-toed out in search of some tranquility.
Outside the quiet house the sky fell in tresses of hoary vapor against the indigo night, full of little scatterings of stars more real now than when they had actually burnt. Music floated up from deeper in the valley, tendrils of notes curling round the ringlets of ivy on the balustrade. The air had an incarnate luster as if all the flowers had unfurled early and were beating out their heady pollen. She drank the life around her, welcomed it deep into her lungs for perhaps the first time.
She went out, after that, and listened to the world and the people. The rape of this nation still clung to its memory, but an unimaginable feat of human spirit had tended it for the broken years afterwards. She met a man who had walked down a road of human bones and had vomited uncontrollably afterwards. His friends had died here. He wished, in the most hushed and brief of utterances, death upon those responsible, and then felt guilty. The woman who sheltered them had lost her husband and expressed some of what was incommunicable beyond the language barrier in her long, slow caress. Children whose families still lived with the horror of what had happened danced, and sang, and created with a fierce, unquenchable passion.
In that place she learnt to invert herself, like a piece of origami whose meaning was never clear until that last, deft yank. There was hate and fear, yes, but those could only amount to ashes and dust and out of those a shoot of good still fought and flourished. As the days drew in the universe seemed to shuck its veil and every patch of life was trembling.
London flickered in its neat little patches as the plane began to descend. She couldn’t quite describe what she was feeling; in its most superficial form, she felt born. As the train pulled out of the station she noticed that when the white platform blurred it took on the coruscating properties of fresh snow, all tangerine-pink and purple ochre, and that the fading summer evening made every building throb with and pure light. The train slid off into the gently dissolving night - dim now, but getting brighter.