I have heard stories about the few embers of civilisation that still persist. They live behind heavily fortified walls, manned by men so big, our ancestors would call them giants. Their weapons shoot metal so fast, it can kill you instantly. They don’t care about outsiders. The only thing on their minds is the juicy meat they probably eat and the soft bed that waits for them at the end of the day. I don’t judge them. If I could have lived with them, I would care for exactly the same things. I wouldn’t even think of their existence, if they weren’t responsible for my situation right now.
I was born and raised by my collective. We were sheltered in the ramshackled ruins of a residential building. My life as a child was not so bad. I was playing “hide from the enemy” in the ruined building, or “kick the ball” with a ball of rags. My favorite friends where two other kids of my age. An older kid was my tormentor for a few years, he used to pull my ear and hear me scream until help arrived from the adults, but that didn’t last long. Soon he grew up and became more interested in his wife than little kids playing.
I also had some education. I learned to care for the crops we had on the roof, to read and write, and some basic arithmetics. My father told me I was very lucky to be born where I was. In other collectives, people of my age could barely communicate with each other using speech.
When I grew a bit older and my body got stronger, they started training me for battle. Wooden clubs, rusty pipes and rocks. We made sure to preserve our clubs very very well, to prevent rot from taking over. They were made of solid wood, from before the wars, thus very rare and strong. We took them out of their sheath only when we were traveling to the outdoors for water and herbs, and maybe even hunt animals.
I can remember the first time I got out of our building, two winters after my training began. My father told me to stay close to him. He didn’t like that I was commanded to be part of the mission.
I saw the remains of the old city, the majority of buildings being completely collapsed. Whenever we saw a building standing, we changed our route. Those were the homes of our enemies, my father told me, and in my mind I was picturing hunched monsters with long nails that were feeding on human flesh. But those monsters were living in buildings just like our own. Some of their walls were broken, the paint on the walls was chipped away by time and bullets, and heavy barricades stood at all the entrances.
Τhere were huge holes on the streets. Craters from a war, my father told me. I remembered when I was just a little older than a toddler, being scared from the sounds and fire of war. For some time, maybe five winters, war frequently visited our ruined city. When that happened, we all run to our basement and waited for the explosions to stop.
Our basement was open and vulnerable from all sides and I remember being worried about the possibility of enemies coming in. My father reassured me that we didn’t have to worry about our enemies. Nobody would dare travel out on the streets as long as war was going on, and the giant warriors with the firearms were not interested in us. We had to stay in the basement, because one miscalculated explosion could bring the building down.
We spent days and days under sturdy tables or anything else that seemed robust enough. The eldest or the most fearless of us ventured on the roof during the day to manage our crops - because nature doesn’t wait for wars to stop.
The explosions from those wars rang clear in my mind every time I saw a crater. We would had to travel through the city to the grasslands on the countryside to gather herbs and water from the river. Our leader had a crude map of the city, which he had marked in great detail to help us avoid our enemies. But, on a large road, we ended up bumping into some anyway.
We had a few more men than them. We started sizing each other’s groups up. My father pointed to a young man, who looked weaker than me and told me that in case of battle, I should go and kill him - and in general, to look for weak or preoccupied enemies to kill. The most experienced of us would handle the rest.
It wasn’t smart of us to sit there all day long. They didn’t look like they wanted a fight. Both groups were nervous but also curious. We didn’t get to talk to people outside of our collective, we were too afraid to seek them out, but it was something we all wanted very much. Yet the only thing we ended up discussing, through our leader, was about how dangerous the grasslands were at that time.
They told us that there were more Hunters than usual, but if we stayed away from the hills, maybe we could pass unnoticed, just like their group managed to. We saw that they were carrying buckets, surely full of water.
I knew our leader was very tempted to attack them. If we could defeat them, we wouldn’t risk a battle with the Hunters. We wouldn’t become tired and vulnerable to attacks, by going to the countryside and getting tired by carrying water, just like they did. We could see that the long walk and the weight of the water had taken its toll on them. We could be back home on the same day.
When they moved away, our leader told us the plan. We would attack them and take what they were carrying. Those who retreated in fear before us would be allowed to leave, but our scouts would follow them back to their home without being spotted. They would mark their building to our map and bring back as much information about their defence as possible. Our battle should be fast and as quiet as possible.
We approached them again. We didn’t have to draw our weapons for them to know what was going to happen. They had the bad luck to meet us while they were coming back, tired. They were easy targets. And they knew that. They drew their weapons first to show us they were ready.
I didn’t feel good, when I hit that kid on the head with my club. Neither did he. He only gave me a half hearted hit to the ribs, before I got him. After I finished him off, I saw a man who had pinned down my father and they were fighting hand to hand. I hit him on the back of the neck. My father pushed him off him, grabbed a large rock and crushed his head under it.
We started looking for other enemies that were preoccupied with fighting our men, so we could kill them. That was our tactic and more of our people started doing that. It helped that there were more of us than them. My father killed a young man who had killed one of us.
It became clear that they had lost the battle. Some retreated as we had predicted. Others stayed and fought, because the rage from seeing their brothers dying was too much and it blinded them. We lost some good men too. As was our ritual, we carried our dead back to our building to eat them. We left our enemies there to rot and be eaten by maggots and flies, as I learned from my father. I didn’t like that thought. After all, they hadn’t tried to hurt us. They were not that different from us. They didn’t deserve to not be honored by anyone. But those were the rules of our leader.
The next day, our scouts returned with the location of our enemies’ home. It was a residential building, like ours. It wasn’t defensible. It had too many entrances. They also didn’t have enough men to guard them all. Most of the sentries were the people who had retreated from the battle with us and even the women had to stand guard. We decided that they didn’t have too many men left. We left some of our people back to guard our home and the rest of us marched against our enemies. We took with us more than we needed - we didn’t want to risk to lose more men in this attack. As we walked, I could feel the power of my dead friends inside me. I could feel it in my muscles, the strength that I got from the ritual, from them. We would attack during the day. We would let the women live and capture them, since we didn’t have many in our collective.
To our surprise, they didn’t even try to fight. They were all hungry and thirsty. We were offered to take whatever we wanted from them, in exchange for letting them live. We chose some of their women, some fertile soil, food and seeds, and what was left of their water. It was a death sentence for them. They knew it. They said that they would try to live on the grasslands, hoping that they wouldn’t get caught by anyone. Our elders knew that it would be suicide for them. In the countryside they would be exposed to and be in constant danger from the Hunters. But we didn’t say a word. It was us that had forced them in this situation after all.
The wife I chose was a little older than me. She told me that this wasn’t the first time she had lived through such a situation. She was stolen from her birthplace by the group we had just destroyed. Our food production after the battle had grown, just like our population. Inevitably so did our water needs. Our missions to the river had become more frequent. We were reaching the limits of our population capacity. Old people died and children were born to replace them. My father was one of them. A pain in his chest, growing greater every day. But he waited until my firstborn was born and be given his name. After that he gave up and died, happy that he would live through my son. After that I made another son. My wife had another son before them, that was lost in a fever. I agreed to give our second son his name. She was happy to see them grow strong and healthy and in a community that provided a good environment for them to grow strong and smart. And for a very long time, I was happy as well.
And then war returned, worse than ever before. Everyday, we could hear hundreds of explosions. Bursts from firearms were heard all around us. We even saw some of the warriors on the streets. We hadn’t seen anything like them. They were two to three times bigger than even the biggest of us. They wore clothes that blended almost perfectly with the environment. They were either hiding behind half demolished walls, or running to their next cover.
When it was my turn to go to the roof and care for the crops, I risked taking a look around the city. Buildings that used to stand tall, were now laying on the ground. Collapsed, probably having killed all of their inhabitants. Our building was in a relatively good shape. The warriors used our upper floors to get a better view from the high ground, but when they were done with whatever they were occupied with, they left without breaking any of our work. Only one of our crop beds had been trampled by them, because it was at a spot that provided an excellent view of a big road. I dared look on that road and saw the bodies of warriors, but quickly moved away before I got the attention of who knows who was down there. The walls of our building had taken many hits by projectiles. Luckily they had not suffered any explosions, but the projectiles were enough to sometimes break large wall pieces. After the war, we would have many more entrances to be guarded against enemies.
After about a month, the war was still going on with an even greater ferocity. Our building was shaking and we were shaking along with it in fear. For hours this had been going on. Some tried to sing, others just cried openly, without even keeping a mask of bravery on for the good of the collective. A large explosion was felt in our chests and almost deafened our ears. What I heard after that, I imagine was the sound of the floors falling one onto another. I held my wife tight and she did so too.
I don’t know if she did it on purpose, but her body protected me. We were trapped under a half broken table, in the ruins of our collapsed home. Fate wanted me to live on for a little longer. Somewhere close to me were my kids. Tears flowed when I thought how foolish I was when I told them to hide under another table. In theory, my father had told me, the tables could protect us from falling rubble. He had promised me that when I was a kid. But now that I had seen the strongest table of our building getting crushed, trapping me underneath, I knew that it was all stories. Lies we told ourselves to give each other hope to live.
It was dark, our little bubble of air. My wife in my arms was trying to keep breathing, trembling in fear of her end. She didn’t want to die. I kissed her. I couldn’t find the words to comfort her. My chest was heavy. I had trouble breathing. In my final moments I thought of my life. I thought of how insignificant we were, that our death would not change anything. I was born in a world that was ruled by war. The horror of death was not enough to stop it. Why did people chose war? Why was it worth it to stop prematurely the lives of people who lived, who laughed, who loved? War didn’t even stop when people had nothing to divide them. There was enough land in the world for everyone. Was it fear? Was it sadism, imposing your will no matter what? The answer is just in front of me, but the fog in my mind isn’t letting me see it. Last breath. My father had said that we would go to a better place after our death. But perhaps he was wrong yet again. I see a light behind the fog of consciousness.