Civil strife had broken out in almost half of the countries in Europe. What was left of the last democracies was beginning to vaporize in the unprecedented horrors of war. Borders were starting to seem like mere boundaries, pointless and inane. The fascists had already taken over the western side, oblivious to the entire bloodbath the conflicts had created. Towns were disappearing on a daily basis, massacres became a common occurrence. And those who survived were left to ponder whether they were lucky enough to stay alive; or were it actually unfortunate to still exist in this diabolical version of their hometowns.
The makeshift bridge shifted slightly under the weight of the people now moving slowly over it. Beside them, the Danube slowly made its way, meandering through the rocks that hid the bridge and the people from the other side. Women and children followed the men, who were leading the large group walking slowly towards the other side. Small trucks, horses and bullock carts followed, carrying whatever things the villagers could assemble in the limited amount of time they were given. As they slowly inched forward aiming for their destination, I stood on the banks of the river, wondering if we could ever reach the other side safely. Stukas were the deadliest at the time and before you knew they would have bombed half of the city, in the blink of an eye. Fighting against the fascists was always risky. But I knew I would never have done otherwise. Clearly, those who joined the other side had an entirely different conception about living.
As I lingered over these thoughts, I noticed it was almost dusk. As per the orders, we are supposed to evacuate as many towns as possible on this side of the river and escort them safely to the refugee camps on the other shore. As I turned my back towards the beautiful sunset that sprawled in front of me, the sky had already abandoned the azure and embraced the golden tinge of red. The whole area was silent, except for the occasional neigh of the horses and the slow rumbling notes of the wheels. While the men walked in front, without averting their gazes from the refugee camps that were slightly visible, the women accompanied their children and followed quietly. A bunch of people, mostly farmers and smiths formed the rear, taking care of the carts and trucks. Even from a distance, I could sense the gloom in their movements. Their heads were hanging low and their faces were morose – they knew they were at the precipice of death or defeat.
As I started walking towards the entrance of the bridge with the last of the cadets, a figure sitting on the edge of the rocks nearby caught my eye. The setting sun made it difficult to get a clear picture from a distance. Knowing that time wasn’t on my side, I ran towards the silhouette. An old lady sat there, covered with dusty rags, a wooden staff and a small cloth-bundle. She was gazing intently at the direction from which all the villagers came from; neither at the sunset nor at the crowd that was helplessly abandoning their homeland. She sat there motionless and tired, without uttering a word.
“I am waiting for my grandson”, she said curtly, without looking up. I sensed urgency and determination in her frail voice.
“Almost everyone has been evacuated. Your grandson might already have entered the bridge. I suggest you..”
“He won’t leave without me. He said he will come right behind after getting his dog. He’ll be here any minute.”, she replied, slowly looking back at the bridge. The remaining cadets were waiting for me at the bridge. I shouted at them to proceed without me.
“I still think you should come with us. The enemy tanks will be here any minute. Before that we have to reach the camps and dismantle the bridge. Your grandson might have got caught up in the crowd and was unable to get to you. He should be fine.”
For the first time, she lifter her head up and looked directly at me. Her green eyes had an intense glow that perfectly contrasted with her somber features. Their irradiance somehow reflected all hope mankind had at that point of time. Her dark skin, littered with freckles made her look older than she actually seemed to be. She was weak and exhausted, but her look told me she wasn’t ready to give up yet.
“He is very young. He wouldn’t have reached here ahead of all those people. I can’t cross the bridge without him. I won’t cross the bridge without him. You can leave if you want. Thank you.”
The sternness in her voice surprised me. Anyway, she had succeeded in making me understand that she wouldn’t budge. As I was about to turn back and leave, she continued in her low, husky voice.
“The dog’s a naughty one, he really is. He might have to go up to the barn to find him first. Then run all the way till here. I hope he takes his shoes with him. He is still so young. How long do you think we will stay in the camps?”
“As long as the war continues”, I answered, unsure whether to be optimistic or brutally honest.
“You telling me we going to last till the war ends? That we are going to win this? Both of us know the truth here. I don’t mean to be sadistic, but unless all those sycophants who blindly follow those monsters at the top change their minds and come back, we don’t have a chance. After all, this world is a cynical one.”
I said nothing. She was far too wise to have an argument with. That if I actually had an argument. The fascists could take over half the continent within a few weeks if they had enough ammunition and tanks. If only we had enough number of people on our side.
Now convinced that the old woman is not coming with me alone, I decided to leave her at the banks. But one last attempt wouldn’t hurt.
“Can you walk? Or do you need any help?”
She smiled wryly and tapped the wooden staff slowly with her hands. I knew she had made her decision.
I turned and started walking towards the bridge. I didn’t turn back until I reached the other end of the bridge. It was night already, and I found no signs of humans coming up the bridge. As we undid the bridge, I knew exactly what happened.
The Fascists won the war, only to be overthrown a few years later by a low profile group that was formed during their tyrannical reign. Peace was slowly getting restored. Towns were coming back to normal, people were recovering. Even though there was news about some small groups rebelling for the fascists, they were easily suppressed, now that everything was under control. It was surprising how we could heal so quick after such a brutal state of warfare.
And among all these happenings, I still remembered the old woman’s words. When I returned to the rocks where I met her, there were no traces of her or her grandson and it was not at all surprising. I wanted to believe they were safe, but as a first hand witness of the atrocities of the battle, I had to believe otherwise. Nothing over there had changed; the river slithered pacifically, the sky still had that golden tinge, the sunset was as beautiful as ever. I wished the old woman was there to see all this. I wished I could show her all that had happened.
“After all, this world is a cynical one.”
As her words resonated in my ears, I wished I could prove her wrong and tell her the truth.
“No, it isn’t. It’s a beautiful world.”