Jan/Feb 2002  •   Fiction

Dead Leaves Driven

by Tom Brennan

We lost Peter last night. I knew he couldn't sleep. He hadn't been eating. But it still got to us, although we thought nothing else could.

Peter took six morphine syrettes from Van's Medic pouch and walked down to the bank of the river. It's very peaceful down there, with pale silver birch and the sound of water over smooth rocks.

Van found him and thought he was sleeping. That makes four of us left, from the squad of eight. I wish we'd had time to bury Peter.

We're the rearguard for a column of refugees. They're mainly old men, women and children. The younger men are either fighting, prisoners in camps, or dead. The refugees carry all they can, or push overloaded handcarts and barrows.

The aircraft use the straight chalk roads for strafing and bombing practice, but we usually hear them coming. The trees don't provide much cover. You have to put your head down in the ditch and hope. Mike fires off the heavy machine gun at the planes but it's just for show, to help the refugees' morale.

Peter was the youngest, and suffered the most when we found the basement room. It had been late summer. The soldiers had rounded up the few remaining people in the village and forced them into the Town Hall basement. Then they poured petrol in and dropped grenades.

We found the room two days later. A child was still alive. Most of its body was burnt, and its left arm was gone. Its mother was curled protectively around it. A cloud of fat bluebottle flies infested everything.

We had plenty of morphine, then. It didn't take much. Peter stood in the centre of the room, his eyes wide. He didn't speak unless he had to, after that.

The capital is 70 miles away and we're only making 10 or 12 miles a day. The artillery starts up behind us in the early morning and only stops at nightfall. We're running out of food and water. We can't trust the village wells: they're a good dumping place for corpses.

But the enemy hasn't reached this far, yet; it is the villagers themselves doing the killing. Settling old scores. So we have to find woodland streams and that slows us down.

When I was a child, on some dry school trip, I saw paintings by Breughel. I remember medieval houses, winding streams and slender trees in the snow. This country is a Breughel come to cold life. I didn't see, as a child, the skewed reality of the paintings, the misshapen peasants and the atmosphere pressing down on the scenes.

Now, walking through deserted villages, looking in the hurriedly abandoned houses, I see the past and present together. Nothing's changed here.

Van helped a middle-aged woman give birth by the roadside. She struggled and screamed for an hour but the child emerged healthy and bawling. Van went for more water. When he came back she had throttled the baby. It lay swaddled in an old potato sack. We hadn't known that the woman, like many others, had been raped many times.

Autumn is coming and the trees are shedding brown and grey leaves. Dawn is my favorite time. Before the shells have started, before most of the people are awake, I wander alone through the ground-hugging mists and imagine I'm back home. You can hear the birds clearly, singing ornate complicated choruses to mark their territory or attract a mate.

Then the sun rises and the artillery starts. And the rout continues.

Jorge wants us to abandon the refugees and make our own way. He's right, we could make better time. He's the same rank as me, Corporal. He can go, if he wants to. But I've seen what they do to refugees. I'm staying. Besides, I think we can all make it.

An incoming shell blasted a crater in the road, and killed twenty people. We hardly noticed the cries and screams. I think it was a stray, off target, or maybe they're just firing at random. They're definitely getting closer. Stragglers we find on the way soon replace the people who are killed.

A couple asked me to marry them, like the captain of a ship would. He was perhaps 60 years old, she was in her 30s. We held the ceremony by candlelight, beneath the trees, when we stopped for the night. I tried to remember the words from my own marriage and they seemed happy with that. They exchanged rings made from copper wire. They had no family with them.

I haven't seen them in the past few days. Maybe they left us, made their own way.

The rode climbed the side of a wide valley. We looked back from the crest of the ridge, to the opposite slopes, and could see the afternoon sun glinting off wet armor. The guns sound very close now.

We carried on walking through the night, and could see the spires of the capital city by sunrise. The refugees are tired and weak from hunger but we pushed them on. Then, when we could hear the roar of diesel engines through the trees behind us, I told the refugees to continue alone.

We have a pouch full of grenades, a thousand rounds for the machine gun, and two light anti-tank weapons. Jorge decided to stay with us. He's over the other side of the road, dug in with Van. Mike is with me on this side. We can see the cloud of white dust rise from the road behind, and hear the deep rumble of the tanks.

The ground is moist beneath me, and I can smell the sharp tang of leaf-mould and dead wood. And all I can think of are those two small circles of copper wire.

Evidence: Fragment of journal #223, found near Podgorica, 12.09.03. Anon.