Hello there! Here we are again, time for the May IWSG. Hilarious how fast this year is going.
Each month there is an optional question:
I'm going to do the question - sorta. To me, one of the highs of the writing life is writing from the heart. That's different to the sometimes cold-hearted plotting we do for a short story or a full-length novel. One of the reasons I love WEP is that I get to fire off a from-the-heart flash fiction in response to a prompt every second month. Really keeps me on my toes and I value the feedback from the WEP writers and anyone else who comes by and reads.
For the April WEP challenge for the Year of Music - A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall - I knew I was going to write from the POV of someone in that Mariupol theatre where at least 300 people died while sheltering, thinking the word 'Child' at both entrances would save them from the Russian missiles. Fat chance. Anyway, after reading the first-person accounts from people hiding there and in similar places, I studied the photographs that emerged and I imagined being one of those unfortunates and wrote the following story using a fully immersive POV. Why I'm reposting is that there were very few readers as the WEP numbers were down for whatever reason and virtually no one else came by. I know April is an impossibly busy blogger month. So, forgive me for wanting my story to reach a wider audience than I had in April.
So, with a few edits, written from the heart, here is ...
Ode to the Innocents
I can’t move, I can’t think, I’m freezing.
Anastasiya gathers her overcoat around her, pulls her woollen hat over her ears, wriggles her toes in her stiff boots. There’s no room to stamp her feet. Bodies press against her from all sides.
Why didn’t she run when she had the chance? Was it her love for her country? Her reluctance to be parted from her remaining relatives, especially her brother who returned from Poland to fight after her mother died in the bombing? She has no answers, not even to herself. Glory to Ukraine.
Lord only knows how long she’s sat upright, huddled, with nothing to lean against. Her back feels like it’s breaking. But she's grateful to have escaped here after the bombing of her apartment block. Yelling and screaming, along with hundreds of her neighbours, empty handed, she’d stumbled through broken earth, tripped on broken glass, only just avoided being torn apart by sharp steel girders lying half buried in her path. But she made it here ...
... to the shelter. Dark as pitch. It separates them all as surely as it binds them together. She’s been inside the shelter for hours, days, weeks, she’s lost track of everything but the gradual warming of the atmosphere from the press of too many bodies against the coolness of the cement floor, the weeping walls. Their collective breath in the chilly room forms a moving fog. The faint aroma of fragrance, the smell of beer breath, the bitterness of stale cigarettes is by now woven into their clothes, hair and skin. Oh, how she longs for sunshine, for fresh air.
The mournful sharp notes of a Jew’s harp played by an old man sets her teeth on edge even though it’s no more than a whisper. The vibrations resonate with the beat of her heart. Her grandfather played the Jew’s harp. Now her grandfather is dead after picking up a gun and slipping away one night to fight the enemy. Her father played, but she has no idea if he’s dead or alive. The last she heard he was in an operation to take back a city in the south. Her brother was learning to play before war broke out. She wonders if he'll ever place it to his lips again. Glory to Ukraine.
She’s hyper conscious of every movement, each and every sound – the whimpering of small children and beloved dogs, the snores of the elderly exhausted by the sharp turn their lives have taken in a short time, the rustle of clothing as people try in vain to get more comfortable, the faint click of knitting needles as a middle-aged woman fashions a colourful scarf to keep her son warm at the battlefront, the fragile stillness of the woman sitting nearby as she holds her breath, afraid to exhale.
Then … air raid sirens … muffled gasps as the missile sings its death song overhead.
The ground shudders. Is it only the weight of tanks and trucks on the roads escalating the ferocity of sound, drowning out the knitter’s coughing fit and the elderly gentleman’s incoherent cries. She clenches her teeth, holds her breath, counts, waits for the next blast and the weight of the debris and soil as it presses down, weighs down their flesh, levels the building as they all disappear further beneath the earth. She imagines being found days, weeks later, her stiff arm protruding from the rubble, her legs snapped like twigs, captured for the evening news. The two lovers who embrace at her feet, will their arms still be locked around each other? Their desperate lips clamped together for eternity? What of the bundles of clothes and prized possessions brought to the shelter for safekeeping, will they become scorched artefacts in this communal tomb?
Shaking her head, she tries to dispel the gruesome images which isn’t helped by the laments from those awake who fear what’s about to happen. Glory to Ukraine.
I can’t die. I won’t die. I have my whole life before me. God help me, I’m only sixteen.
There’s nowhere to run. She clenches her fists to her stomach. This is it.
The atmosphere thickens. Her breathing intensifies. Opening her stinging eyes, she sees flecks of ash skittering around her head. If she pokes out her tongue, she’ll taste death. She struggles to think of something else, to grasp hold of a thread of something normal, the way it was only weeks ago. Not this deepest, darkest hell they've fallen into. This slow death. She wills the thudding of her blood and muscle to cease, to force her heart back to its normal size and her breathing to slow enough to stop overtaking her thoughts.
She smells the fear all around her in the dank perspiration of the terrified inmates of this prison which had offered the last vestige of hope in a city being pummelled into the ground. She senses it in the unease that has overtaken their shared space. Hears it in the desperate prayers as people call on God to deliver them. But God has turned his back on this hideous war where once again it’s man against man. When will they ever learn, she imagines Him asking?
Her legs are numb and her back locked rigid, her muscles set in permanent contraction. Head between her knees, she shivers uncontrollably, she cries for her mother. Amongst hundreds, she has never felt so alone. The earth is so cold and pressed against her so tightly that the pain begins to spread through her like the fire that surely rages overhead, engulfing the shattered building where she shelters.
“Glory to Ukraine!” The cry is so loud she wonders if it will rally them in their last moments.
It grows eerily quiet. Above their heads, the cement girders snap, falling, burying them. Her mouth fills with debris. With her last breath, she can see in her mind’s eye the latest video from her President.
“We are here with you,” President Zelensky said. “Glory to Ukraine.”