|Jan/Feb 2006 Fiction Special Feature|
When the men had passed, I went outside. I was the first, but the other women followed. The sky was a gorgeous blue, the kind of blue that you want to put your hand into and scoop up great handfuls. None of us said anything for a while, we just watched the backs of the men, our men, as they walked away.
We'd known about it for a few days. Karl had been very quiet since the letter, and I'd left him alone. I understood. There was nothing to say. As we lay in bed that first night, we could hear Magda and Peter next door. They were arguing, screaming at each other. She wanted him to run, she wanted them both to run. But Peter knew there was no point. There was nowhere to run to. We listened to their dull voices for too long. Eventually, Karl began to touch me, without looking, and we made love. It was over quickly, and Karl was immediately asleep. I stayed awake, imagining what it would be like without him. It was impossible.
The Leader wanted all the men. His letter said that it was essential for every member of the community to play their part. The women, of course were to stay behind. The children, said the Leader, were our future, and the women were the guardians of that future. The letter went out of its way to emphasize that the women stayed behind, in the community. I wanted to know why, what had they to hide? Karl looked at me for a long time before he answered, then told me quietly that it was the dead they wanted to hide. The walls were piled high with our fallen, and the enemy was climbing over the bodies to get at us.
"And now they need more bodies for the enemy to climb on. That's why we have to go." When he said this he touched my cheek, but his hand trembled. We didn't speak of it again.
Natasha told me that her husband was excited. "He thinks it's a game," she told me. "He's like a child. It's as if he's been set free." I smiled, agreed, told her that Karl was the same. But Karl hadn't been set free by the letter as some had. Karl knew what it meant. It meant that we women were the future, along with the children. It meant that our future had no room in it for him.
That day, when the men passed by the window, and all the women came out to watch them go, I think most of the women knew. We chatted, once the men disappeared behind the curtain of dust they kicked up from the road. We talked of how nice it would be to have some peace, how funny it was to be just a village of women, how we'd have a huge party when the men came back to us. Perhaps some thought it was true. But I knew. The men had passed; they weren't coming back.
Now, of course, it's difficult to remember. Ten years go by very quickly, and things change. There is a different Leader now, or at least he has a different name, and there are different men. I look at Alex sometimes as he climbs from the bed, the bed I shared with Karl. I watch him as he laces his old boots for another day in the fields, and I wonder if those boots helped him climb our walls, if it was really true that they climbed in on the backs of our dead. I wonder if Alex climbed over Karl to get to me. I will ask him one day, but it is still forbidden to talk of that time. A shame. I would like to speak about Karl, sometimes, perhaps with someone who remembers him. But we had no children, and the other women are just like me: we have other men now, men who don't want to hear about the dead.
This new life, this future of which we were supposed to be the guardians, it feels just like the past. There are differences, but it is very easy, when you feel sadness, or doubt, or guilt, to go outside and stand in the same spot where we watched the men as they walked away. And if you look up at the sky, you'll see that it's the same, gorgeous blue.