The war was long since over, and everyone knew it. We sat in the bunker listening to the Captain’s speeches about holding on and holding out and how every day we stood and fought was another day the enemy was weakened but we didn’t believe it anymore. There was nothing to believe anymore. Once we got replacement soldiers, food, water, a medical officer, and letters from home. Now, we got the speeches from the Captain, and nothing else. We had lost the island and we knew it. The bunker was all that we had left and all that remained of the army that once held the island. A dozen soldiers, seven of them too sick, too wounded, too far gone, too starved, too exhausted, or too weak to stand up lay in a row at the back of the bunker. There was no more water unless it rained, and five of those men would die in the next two days unless they were killed by the shelling.
A rifle shot ricocheted off the walls and we counted the number of times it bounced around the inside of the bunker. Twice only, this time, which meant the sniper was further away. He was toying with us, keeping us awake and afraid, but it no longer worked. What was there to fear, unless it was the fact that we were able to recite the Captain’s speeches word for word with him, like a prayer to a god we knew no longer existed.
We had to get permission to go outside now, and the Captain usually went with anyone who had to relieve themselves. But there was no water, and no food, so the body had little to release. The oldest man in the bunker was twenty-three yet we all moved as if we were ancient. Finally, in the middle of a speech about grinding the enemy down so the homeland could produce some new weapon that would win the war, I simply stood up, and walked out of the doors that swung back into the bunker, and I went outside alone.
A bullet cracked into the face of the stone cliff a few feet away and I knew then I was already dead. I didn’t flinch. I didn’t move. I was vaguely disappointed that he had missed, and I was slightly amused that he was likely surprised at the sight of his mortal enemy; a man who had lost twenty-five pounds since the first time he had stepped onto the island. It took a while and most of my energy but I finally was able to get on top of the bunker, and feel the sun on my body for the first time in weeks.
The sun. It was hot, enormous, and bright unlike I could remember. I slipped off my excuse for a shirt and stood there waiting for my eyes to adjust, waiting for the bullet, and finally, after what seemed to be hours, I could see again. There were ships, many ships, in the harbor, just barely within my sight, and closer to where the bunker overlooked a primitive road that once was the main connection between one part of the island and another, there were two or three ships ploughing through the blue ocean water. Our position had been fought for and men had died, then suddenly they didn’t need the road anymore. It was too narrow and twisted too many times for their trucks. Now they simply landed in one place or another, while we rotted away in places men had died trying to keep.
The next bullet whined by my ear and I stood taller, trying to give him a better target. The next shot came closer, but the wind was blowing harder here than where he was shooting from, I could tell, and I wondered if there was some way of letting him know. In unison, smoke billowed from the three ships and I knew what it meant. They were shelling the bunker now, and they meant to end us.
The first salvo hit before I was inside, and I felt emotion, fear, for the first time in longer than I could remember. We got the iron doors closed as the second salvo hit, and it occurred to me that both sets of shells had missed. They were firing too high. The next and the next and the next set of rounds hit, and I realized they were trying to miss the bunker. They were shelling the rock cliff behind us. They were expending more artillery than I had seen on our side in months just to toy with us. They were trying to bury us alive not kill us. They were trying to make us die even more slowly than we could on our own. We deserved their hatred, we had earned it, and we shared it. We had done worse things to them, and they now did what they could to us.
Dust and noise filled the bunker as a landslide took us. They shelled the bunker next, now trying to make sure we were dead, and I lay on the floor, made of cold concrete and old vows, and waited for the shell that would hit a port, and fill the bunker with hot, sharp, and merciful metal. My mind stopped. All thought and feeling stopped. All sound and sight, stopped, and I thought to myself that it was very strange that I could know that I had died, but if I knew that I had died, I could not be dead, could I? Did death work like that? I had seen so much death, I had killed men, I had seen men killed, I had done things to make men die, and I had seen things done to men I knew so they would die. But to each man, death is like his own breath; it’s personal and no one can feel it for him. I hid my face from the overwhelming dust and the world turned black.
There was a bird. It was a tiny bird, grey and black, and it had a twig in its beak. It flitting away and was gone. The air was a haze of dust, and I coughed hard. I heard someone else cough, and I knew at least some of us had survived. The Captain was sitting near the body of a man, and there was a knife sticking out of the man’s chest. The Captain was ending it all, for everyone, and I knew he would come for me. I found a rifle, checked to see if there was still a bullet left, and I shot the Captain in the head as he sat and watched me. He sat there, his face dirty and bloody, and he knew what I was doing but didn’t move. There was a small opening that showed daylight were the landslide had busted the doors in. There was nothing left to do but to try to not die in the bunker.
I clawed and kicked my way through the rubble and once slid all the way back down into the darkness, the death, and the tomb of many men. I wanted to die facing the sky, looking up into the sun, and so like a turtle stuck on his back, a tried and tried and tried. I took flight. I soared into the sky and I realized that two men, two men in uniform, the enemy, had taken me by either arm and lifted me up. I struggled enough to lift my head and looked into the face of a boy, not old enough to shave, with his helmet skewed to one side, and his eyes looked at me, not in terror or hate, but compassion.
They dragged me down the rubble where there were more soldiers, and some of them, I knew, were no longer boys, who even if they did not shave, they had seen things that we had done, and what would happen to me would be a lesson to be learned for those who did not know. So many of them, so very many, and I wondered how they all got here so quickly, and one of them sat on the ground nearby, looked up at me with boredom and contempt, and went back reading a book he was holding.
A book. I once worked in a library, for I never wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to live and die among books, shelves and rows of books, hundreds of them in the small library in the small town where I lived, but I wanted to work in a real library, with hundreds of thousands of books. I told them, tried to tell them, that I didn’t want to be a soldier, that I wanted a library, not a bunker, but I knew they couldn’t understand. They sat me down and one offered me a can with a liquid in it. Water! Until you have waited an entire day for a half a cup of water out of a rancid bucket you will never know how water really tastes when it is clean. They fed me small cooked cakes that were thin and crispy, but as I sat there I looked around and saw the detritus of war, the helmets on the ground, the torn uniforms that lay bunched and blooded, the spent shells, the broken gear, and the smell of death everywhere, and I knew this kindness might end suddenly, and with a bullet, if I was very lucky.
A woman came into the library, and she smiled at me, and told me she thought I was lucky to work in a library, and how special it must feel to be alone among all those books. I was too shy to ask her name, and she was too shy to offer it. They came the next day and took me away, and in two months I was in the bunker. Now, I was here, and drinking water, and eating the enemy’s strange food, and a man walked up to the group and barked orders at them. This was it. This was their Captain, their man who would give speeches to them, and one of them one kill me, and I would never know her name and I would never die in a library, but here, in the filth of war, and far away from home.
But four men came, two could have done it, for four was too many, but they loaded me onto a stretcher, and another soldier came up and he spoke to me in a terrible accent, and I could hardly understand him, “War over. War finished. Peace now. You understand? You understand?” And I did, but I did not. How could it end? How could there be a world without it? How could I have lived? How could I sit in a room filled with books and not still be stuck in the bunker, waiting to die?
“What book is he reading?” I asked, but I slipped into darkness before I ever knew.