Service Of Life
The battle cry was heard in high spirits on my own land but now with the raining of arms, the heart was not as valiant as it should be on this foreign land. I did not join the army to kill soldiers although they were my enemies. My aim in my life was to be of service to my comrades here on this battlefield and to anyone who needed medical aid.
My heart sank when I heard of the Kandahar massacre that happened a week ago on 11th of March, 2012. A US Army Staff Sergeant murdered sixteen civilians and wounded six Afghans. Nine of them were children. I knew him since we came from the same neighborhood in Ohio but I had no contact with him until I met him in February. I had been here since 2011 being assigned by the US Special Operations in Afghanistan as a cultural mediator but my core work was to serve as a trauma surgeon at the medical camp here. I racked my brain wondering whether I could have seen some signs to stop the terrible atrocity. My whole body trembled as I felt as if I was bare-knuckled out of the ring of humanity. The punches that knocked sense into me were buzzing in my ears. Why did I feel cold perspiration running down my spine? Why was I blaming myself when I had nothing to do with it?
A heavy air of gloominess hung in Panjwai where the killings took place as mourning prevailed after the Muslim burial rituals. The lips of relatives voiced out the dying of their loved ones as fate but grief-stricken hearts could not accept it as such because they blamed the presence of soldiers even if they were there to fight against the Taliban's uprising in Afghanistan. I remembered the words of the mother, Safia, who had died in the brutal slaughter: 'Sufferings have been embedded in our lives. Here, the music of joy does not come from the heart because even a lullaby is sung in fear. Sound of blasting rockets and explosions have instead become the cursed music in our lives!'
In January 2012, Safia's family had welcomed me into their house. It was their custom to welcome guests with respect and to offer food and drinks. I removed my shoes at the door. I was invited to sit on the floor and to dine with the family. It was a simple hearty meal of naan, a flat bread; Badenjan, an eggplant dish; Shorba, an Afghan soup; Lassi, a sweet yogurt drink and tea. I was not used to eating with my hands but I managed somehow. Her son, Azfaar who spoke reasonably good English, Pashto and Dari worked as a translator at the medical camp. I would be at a loss without Azfaar, an eighteen-year-old lad who helped me to communicate with the Afghan community and learn their customs. We had grown to be friends though I did not treat him as a buddy when working.
The head of the family, Abu-Zar shared stories of his life as a farmer before he became disabled after being shot in a crossfire. He spoke of the hardship experienced under the Taliban rule. Abu-Zar said, 'My daughters had to stop schooling because girls were not allowed to pursue an education.' He looked at his girls with loving eyes and continued, 'Sanaz here wants to be a doctor. She wants to be like you giving service of life.' His voice trailed off to a whisper and then bloomed with excitement. He kept pouring tea into my cup.
Just days after the tragic episode, sorrow had changed into rage for the villagers blamed the rich countries with power of creating a war whereby innocent people, their flesh and blood, were wounded or killed. Like in a game of chess, they were pawns that were sacrificed in a game of war. They were casualties of war in which their existence were merely recorded as numbers. I wondered how many lives had to be perished before peace had a chance to sweep across the land.
Sergeant Jasper who brought in a soldier with a battle injury to the medical camp warned me of violence from the local people. And he said, 'You should realize by now that you don't belong here. Why put yourself and others in danger here? The military has made a wrong judgment by sending your kind here! But you're welcomed to my quarters, at least you could put yourself to some good by entertaining the boys!' He laughed mockingly.
My eyes blazed and I told him,'Go screw yourself!' I left in a huff to see to the soldier with a bullet wound.
After performing his Fajr prayers at his mosque, Azfaar, wearing a long white cotton shirts that hung over his baggy trousers and a kufi cap came to the medical camp and met me saying he would not be returning to the camp to work. I wanted to hug and wish him my condolences but he was in a hurry and never looked at me in the eye. He even returned the books I lent him. There was a deep sadness that came out from his throat as the hoarseness of his voice was a testimony of a wounded heart. His cold demeanor cut deeper than words.
It was midnight and the temperature had dipped especially when a cold breeze nestled in the medical camp. Like Florence Nightingale, I moved from a soldier with an amputated leg to another who was blinded in his left eye. I did not carry a lamp like her but there was something that glowed here and I think it was hope. Some faces grimaced in pain, some had blank looks and some revealed a serene hue while fast asleep. After the routine check, I was ready for bed. My eyelids closed but the sound of footsteps woke me up. Walking to the doorway, I stood there peering into the darkness. The sky was a blotch of dark blue ink bleeding and spreading out wildly. In this part of the world, quietness was a rare joy at night with the silence being broken by the howling wind passing through the desert; whimpering cry of the men in my care; or sounds of gunshots. I heard the calculated footsteps again and I caught sight of a shadow. I was about to raise the alarm when I recognised the lean figure.
'Azfaar, what are you doing here? How did you get pass ...?' He hushed me with a gesture.
'Dr. Lily, I cannot be seen here. Can we go somewhere?'
'Sure, let's go to the room at the back,' I said while pointing to the room where I did my surgeries.
'No, I cannot be seen in a room with a woman.'
'We keep the door open,' I said with an authority in my voice and he nodded.
On my way to the room, I caught a glimpse of me in the glass door of the white medicine cabinet. The reflection took me by surprise. Auburn hair was styled into a pony tail and my blue eyes stared back at a stranger where I had changed from a scrawny timid girl in my teens to a bold trooper but now I did not seem to recognise myself. I must not reveal the trembling of my hands.
When we were seated facing each other, he said, 'My heart hurts a lot...' At that point, I tried holding his hands but he pushed my hand away. I steadied myself on the chair while feeling remorse because I could not cure his pain. His tears flowed wetting his cheeks and lips. And I cried with him. He then let me touch his fingers and slowly I clasped both his hands. Calmness filled our hearts softly and gently as time passed.
When Azfaar finally left, it was past 3am. Sergeant Jasper caught me by surprise. I was not sure how long he had been standing there.
'What was he doing here at this hour?'
'Were you spying on me?' I asked.
'Don't reply a question with a question!'
'He's mourning. Half of his family members are dead.'
'I know that. I asked you what he was doing at this hour. What kind of solace was he looking for?' He jeered at me.
'Don't you go there! That's beneath you. He wanted to talk to me without being seen by others.'
Jasper came closer and licked his lips. I could smell his strong body odor. I squirmed my way out and went straight to the ward.
'I can report you.' His voice trailed to an echo. I did not turn back and I whispered to myself, 'So can I.'
The soldier lying on the bed with his head bandaged said, 'Don't worry, ma'am. I won't let no man take advantage of you.'
I smiled and said, 'That's sweet of you. Living my life as a "combat woman" comes with all these undesirable advances. It's no big deal.'
I thought to myself, 'I can surely protect myself. I won't shoot to kill but I can still aim especially if it's an enemy within my own...'
Caria has birthed him herself - she's quicker each time; it's a boy; she is alone and is holding him.
The midwives will be here any minute, along with the Corp, to take him away, to give him to the family who've been successful. She never knows their names - just in case all of the security doesn't work, and she ends up going back on her agreement - so she cannot ever find him. She doesn't usually ever get to see their faces.
She gazes at the tiny fists, bunched together; she drinks in his features, committing them to memory. She strokes his soft downy head, drying already. There's a cloth next to her and she begins to wipe him clean, before an overwhelming urge grabs her. She unbuttons the birthing gown and places the baby against her chest, breathing catching in her throat, an ache for him beginning deep inside and radiating out to every single part of her body. She wraps her gown around him and tears fall fat and wet down her cheeks. This in itself is a miracle; she's not cried properly since she arrived and she wonders if the drugs are wearing off, perhaps affected by the rush of hormones, the rush of womanhood that is usually staved off by the injections they give her, the moment they take the babies away, the moment the midwives-
-the midwives! They will be here, any second. But as the thought hits her with a sickening crunch, she hears her tab beep with an incoming message. It's right there next to her and she twists around to reach it.
It's from Lulu, the head midwife: LATE. DUSTSTORM. HOW IS LABOUR PROGRESSING?
Caria looks down at the baby. His mouth is moving, his head wobbling, in search of her breasts which are aching in return. It's entirely natural as she helps him nuzzle towards her and take her nipple in his tiny mouth. She cries harder - with wonder, with joy, for she's never been told about any of this - as he sucks. She lays back, and thinks.
Quickly, she messages back: Slowly. Nowhere near birth. Do not worry.
She lays the tab aside and looks around the room, her eyes flicking side to side, taking in everything she owns. Then she gets the urge to push again and she's confused; there was only one fetus inside her this time?
It's the placenta. It lands with a plop on the floor and the cord, slippery against her stomach, tightens. She doesn't know what to do - they never tell her anything and there's always a green cloth in front of her so she can't see.
She tries to sit up and pain makes her gasp, pain between her legs, in her muscles, in her arms where she pulled on the birthing rope above the bed. She grimaces and pulls herself to a sitting position; cradling the baby inside her gown, not interrupting his sucking. She looks at the cord. It is pulsing with a life all its own and she watches, fascinated. What is she supposed to do with it? She wriggles to the edge of the bed and peers over, feeling woozy at the sight of the huge burgundy lump at the end of the cord. She knows it is the placenta; she's heard them say it in previous births, but what is she meant to do with it?
Her underwear and trousers are on the floor where she threw them as she felt the baby begin to come. She stands, and feels ill again at the rush of blood that slides down between her legs.
The midwives bring everything. Pads, cloths, towels. She has nothing except what she herself owns. Still holding the suckling baby - as if she's been doing it all her life - she grabs a small towel and holds it between her legs, pulling her pants up over the top. She gets her trousers on - too large for her already - over the top and stands, trying to avoid the blood. The placenta lurks on the floor but she notices the cord has stopped pulsing. She knows the cord has a job and she knows what it is, but the baby is breathing and crying. They don't tell birthers much, - possibly so they don't understand enough to try and keep a child - but she's worked a lot of it out. Her own navel, the cord attached to the baby (she's seen it twice, as the cloth lifted, caught on a sleeve, and she saw a glimpse of wet, shiny, tiny stomach, with the cord still attached.) She's never seen what happens next but it must come off somehow, or she's still have that thing - that large, bloody placenta, still attached even now. She shudders, and dizziness overtakes her.
The baby has stopped suckling and looks as if he's asleep. She puts him down on the bed and lays one of her t-shirts over him, tucking it in at the sides. He is very quiet. In the past, she's heard them scream. She gazes at his face, at the tiny nose, the crescents of his closed eyes, his soft cheeks. And that ache inside her comes back.
They've told her this will be her last. She's given twelve living children to the corp's families. They call her a miracle. When they died, the babies, and there were seven that did (she thinks of this differently, now, looking at this boy) there was a hush in the room, and an extra efficiency behind the green cloth.
She's treated well. Here on this new planet, she is treated better than most corp's employees. She gets a large apartment and a car, so she can drive herself to see the midwives. She is allowed quite a lot of freedom as they tell her she must stay fit, so she's allowed to walk in the 'streets', between the 'buildings'. She walks and thinks about this new world and in the past, she's felt happy that she's a part of it, happy that she's playing a part in its creation.
Lately though, she's felt mostly tired. Mentioning it to the midwives meant an increase in injections, which meant she'd feel better for a few weeks, but then it came back and back. And they said she was finished, thank you very much, and that she'd be driven to one of the outlying settlements and given a different job.
The idea arrives so fast it's as if it has always been there. First, she grabs a cooking pot and scoops the placenta into it, placing it next to the boy on her bed. Then she hefts down the bag they've given her to pack (she was meant to be leaving next week) and stumbles around the room, dizzy and sore, filling it with as many of her possessions as she can. There isn't much and there's still space in her bag when she's done. So on to she laces all the extra towels and cloths she's allocated, the pots and knives, and the gun. She always had a problem with the gun, given as extra protection - against what, she had no idea - but they insisted she learn how to use it and they insisted it stay in her apartment.
There's a beep from the tab.
ETA = 10 MIN
She rushes faster, grabs the keys to her vehicle, runs outside and throws the bag in the backseat. Then she panics: where is she going to put the baby in the car? Her gown is flapping around her shoulders and she flings it off and onto the back seat. She rummages in the bag for an outer shirt, runs back inside, thanking stars she lives on the edge of the settlement and has no near neighbours, and gently lifts the t-shirt from the baby. She puts it on and slides him inside, back close to her where he belongs. He is still quiet but she's no time to worry about this. She pulls on the outer shirts and buttons it tightly, wrapping the baby in against her skin. The cord trails out of the top of her shirt and she pushes it to the side, grabs the pot with the placenta, and leaves, getting straight in her vehicle and closing the door.
A wave of dizziness hits her and she realises she's not eaten for hours, that she's hungry, that she's forgotten to pack food.
She grabs the pot again and stumbles back inside, finds the small bag she arrived with and fills it with everything from the kitchen that she can fit in.
Surely ten minutes have gone. Her heart is hammering a frightening, off-beat rhythm and she hears the whimpering sound before she realises she's the one making it.
She gets back into the vehicle, checks the tiny face tucked against her, feels his breath, and starts the car.
She looks at the dashboard and sees the wrong colour lights:
There's no fuel.
'No no no no no,' she mutters, thoughts wild. Why is there no fuel? Unless... do the corp DO this? Do they make sure, each time she gives birth, that she is, essentially, trapped? 'WhatdoIdo, whatdoIdo?' she tried to arrange her thoughts but she's so tired, so sore. The feelings take over the thoughts inside her.
And then instinct kicks in.
The search takes five minutes.
'Sir, she's gone. Birth mother thirty-five is not here. And there's evidence of a birth.' The head midwife's voice shakes. She listens.
'No, Sir. There was a dust storm in section five. Nothing we could do.'
She listens again. She hangs her head. 'Right, Sir. I will be there in fifteen minutes.' She turns to the second midwife and the corps' employee, only on his second ever birth job. She takes a breath.
'Although not our fault, this will not go down well. We could end up in Malland. Nobody messes up like this. We should have known she would go quickly. We should have been here this morning.'
'What's Malland?' says the corp's employee.
The head midwife stares at him. 'Where were you in part two of the training? One Chance Only, that's what the lesson was called. No second chances, not up here on Earth Two. Malland is a huge, barren lump of land past the outer settlements. It's where you get sent if you fuck up. And we just fucked up. Now come on, we have to go and lead for our lives. Malland is death. No food, no water. Well, we don't know. Nobody ever comes back to tell the tales. One way flight, they drop you and that's it. Cheaper, and a good lesson, apparently.'
Caria waited until their vehicle started up and silence came back. The baby, directly below their feet, had stayed silent.
She climbed out of the storm shelter, pulling the pot and her bag after her.
Now she knew where she was going. All she needed was some transport.
'It'll be okay,' she whispered to the tiny, downy head. 'It'll be okay.'
And she started walking.
SERVICE OF LIFE
Dr Glendenning was old. He was so old he was called Norman, he reflected sadly.
Dorothy had always told him he looked young for his age, but she was gone and there was no-one now who loved him enough to lie to him.
That autumn evening dusk was falling as Norman said a brief and final goodnight to his practice receptionist – young and new to the job. He picked up his battered old Gladstone bag and carried it for the last time out of his surgery to his car. He was a cliché-ridden old fool, he knew, but he had feelings for that bag. It was like a faithful friend who had served him day in day out as he tended his patients, working tirelessly to extend their lives, to make them more comfortable, more liveable.
“We’ve devoted ourselves to the service of life, you and I. That’s what we’ve done, my old friend.” And he placed the bag carefully on the passenger seat.
Now his own life felt unliveable, and he knew there was nothing in that bag of tricks, faithful servant though it was, that could change that. Over the coming days he would do his best to downsize. That’s what they called it these days, wasn’t it? No point hanging on to stuff. Dorothy’s belongings should have been gone through 3 years ago when she’d died. Now it would be far more painful; but it had to be done.
Dr Glendenning was facing a lonely retirement.
At the other side of town Jean Barker was carefully wrapping up her old dinner service in newspaper and placing the little parcels carefully into two so-called Bags For Life, though it was never clear to her quite WHOSE life - hers or theirs. If it was hers then, yes, they had served her well for a couple of years now, and played their part in saving life on the planet. But, like the dinner service, they were going to the local charity shop with her this morning.
The service had been her wedding china, first wish on Joe’s and her wedding list back in the days when people still asked for such things. It was meant to be her dinner service for life, but since Joe had gone she couldn’t bear to look at it, and in any case all she needed now was a single place setting. Her meagre pension didn’t stretch to dinner guests and anyway she had so few friends left. No-one she could share a meal with.
So, arriving at the High Street, she pulled up sharply and drew in her breath. She knew she shouldn’t have been looking in the shop window, let alone swiftly digging her purse out of the depths of her bag, but she’d spotted a briefcase. It was beautiful. Crafted from the butteriest soft tan leather, pre-owned, clearly well-loved and, like a favourite pet, regularly fed to keep it supple and with a glowing patina to its coat – “Well,” Jean thought, “I mean its hide, of course.” Endowing the bag with puppy dog properties before she’d even touched it was a sure sign of love. Yet it was twenty pounds, her food budget for the week.
The bell over the shop door tinkled like pennies falling from heaven and Jean watched herself walk in. There was no-one at the counter, neither in front of nor behind it, but she could hear rustling and busy chatter in the back. Clearly the assistants were sifting through sacks for treasure and she wondered whether every morning for them was like the Christmas mornings she remembered from being a child, so long ago. A sturdier bell sat on the counter, more redolent of For Whom The Bell Tolls. Jean rang it and thought, “it tolls for thee”. She was beginning to feel rather jaunty.
A busy, smiley woman appeared, looking as though she had just found the treasure of Tutankhamun’s tomb. She greeted Jean cheerfully, and in response Jean carefully handed over her donation and received the woman’s effusive thanks.
“Also…….could I look at the briefcase in the window, please? The lovely soft tan leather one”.
Jean breathed in deeply, feeling the desire to describe it to please her own ears, even though there was just the one bag on display.
“It is twenty pounds, but isn’t it beautiful,” said the assistant, and she carried it carefully from the window and laid it before Jean, who made a show of opening it up, looking inside and checking out the zips and closings. She knew immediately that even had every fastening been broken beyond repair, it would have made no difference to her. Once she held the case it was hers and, flinging caution to the wind, she thought, “Food! Who needs it anyway!”
“No need to wrap it,” she said. “It’s fine just as it is. It’s a bag so it’s made to be carried.” She paid up with her weekly budget, said a very cheerful goodbye to the woman and strode off, swinging her purchase as she went.
Briefcase and Jean continued to swing happily along the High Street home, both of them tipping a wink at any passing stranger whose eye they happened to catch.
Once back behind her front door, Jean touched the bag again. Stroked it. It was her bag now and, although she might go a bit hungry for a few days, she had no regrets. She knew her parents had always hoped for better things for her. A career where such a bag might be a requirement. A solicitor or a teacher. But she’d ended up being an ordinary school dinner lady, serving hot meals to the children in the hope she was giving them nourishing food for life, just as much as the teachers themselves were.
Jean drew herself back to the present, placed the briefcase gently on her sofa and considered what she would put in it. It didn’t really matter. She had fallen in love with it. That was all that mattered to her. She finally had the bag that might have been an accompaniment to a glittering career.
Jean’s lunch that day was a banana. Dinner was a tray meal of beans on toast. Most enjoyable, and she felt perfectly satisfied. The bag watched from the sofa and it felt like they were instant friends. The zipper seemed to turn up at the corners and form a smile. Jean’s bag was as happy as she was.
As the week wore on her kitchen cupboard began to look rather empty and her stomach felt the same way. By the time Friday came, she was reduced to an old can of asparagus soup a year or so past its sell-by. She had no bread to dip in it and as her bag watched her its zipper now turned down as if to say “Look what I’ve done to you by coming to live with you.”
Jean and the bag both knew it wasn’t the bag’s fault, but only she knew she had to return it to the shop and get her £20 back. She still had the receipt, though she hadn’t expected to need it.
That Friday night Jean comforted herself by hugging the leather to her one last time. She went to bed sad and hungry and waited for the morning to come. When it finally did come it was a sunny one, and Jean placed the bag carefully into an ordinary carrier. Returning it to the shop felt like a betrayal that she didn’t want the bag ever to see. She needed to hide its face.
Jean hung her head on their walk down the High Street and, reaching the shop, opened the door and stepped inside. Pennies from heaven tinkled, and For Whom The Bell Tolls and Tutankhamun’s treasure would await them inside. The mood of the shop would be unchanged, but impressions can fall on one in such different ways.
Jean’s mouth, this Saturday morning, was downturned and she daren’t even think about the bag’s zipper as she took it out of the carrier. So it was a surprise to her when, removing it very sadly, she saw that it was again smiling. “Unbearable,” she thought, and, returning to the puppy dog imagery, “like an unwanted Christmas pet, it doesn’t know it’s going to be returned.” And she waited for its zipper to droop as she approached the counter.
This time there was someone both in front of and behind it. Behind, the assistant had clearly not just found treasure this day, and was shaking her head apologetically at the man who stood in front. He was an unremarkable man, the most noticeable thing about him being the set of his shoulders as he clearly took in some bad news. He paused, and then he turned to leave, passing Jean without a glance, looking only at the floor. Pennies from heaven sounded again as he opened the door and left. It was her turn now. The assistant’s eyebrows went up interrogatively.
“I’d like to return this briefcase, please.” Jean lied. She didn’t like to at all, but she proffered the bag and the receipt.
“This is unbelievable,” said the assistant, and Jean could see it was, for the expression on the assistant’s face clearly said that the unbelievable had indeed happened. Jean couldn’t say she was really surprised, as it also seemed unfathomable to her that anyone should be returning such a beautiful thing. Then the woman was turning and running out of the shop, leaving the tinkling door open behind her. Jean stood perplexed, the bag still there on the counter quietly awaiting its fate.
There was some shouting in the street and – did time stand still? Did the universe hold its breath? Whatever was happening out there, the next thing she was aware of was the return of the woman shop assistant. She looked happy; she looked radiant; she beamed at Jean. Jean beamed back, out of sheer politeness, as she knew of no other reason to beam on this dismal day.
She cast a tentative glance at her bag, soon to be hers no more, and its zipped expression was inscrutable. However, she had the distinct feeling it was looking over her shoulder beyond her. Jean turned around and there behind her stood the man, the unremarkable man, who had left the shop minutes before in such obvious disappointment.
“I understand,” he spoke to Jean, “I understand that you are returning this bag to the shop.”
Jean inclined her head. “I love it,” she explained, “but I can’t afford it.”
He smiled his ordinary smile. “The bag was a cherished possession of my late wife, Dorothy. It sounds whimsical, I know, but she always felt that bag devoted itself to the service of her life. She was a teacher, you know. And, well, she just got these ideas. Anyway,” he said, suddenly recovering himself,” I thought I could part with it, but it turns out I can’t.”
Jean’s heart felt as though it would burst with compassion as she watched him buy back Dorothy’s faithful old briefcase with a crumpled twenty pound note. A charity shop never loses. The bag settled itself happily in the man’s hand and he smiled at her, a grateful smile and then a welcoming smile. It was sad but somehow hopeful.
He seemed to her a very unremarkable man. As ordinary as beans on toast. And yet, he looked most enjoyable. Yes, Jean felt sure she would be perfectly satisfied.
And the briefcase? Well, its zipper was hidden from view, but, as they told each other some years later, Jean and Norman had known it was smiling again, knowing it had once more been of service.