The wind was slow, but Esteban thought that made it bite harder into their skin. The ragtag group humped over yet another impossibly high hill, the frost around them illuminating and also hiding what lay ahead. Sozimo hugged his injured arm and annoyed them with a developing cough that made Esteban wish he’d chosen point this time. The seven Spaniards hurried as much as tired men could into the dark countryside. Their clash with the communists left them the only remains of their unit, Esteban tried not to think of the horrors he had seen as they came to the crest of this ungodly hill.
“Stop” ordered Basilio, their Moroccan commander. Esteban couldn’t remember his rank but he had the personality of a calm, focused leader and none questioned his decision earlier to leave the village and flee with their only reward for so many lives lost: a single prisoner.
“My calves are killing me!” It was no surprise that this came from Gael, who had most likely been born complaining. He collapsed next to his buddy Martinez and they shared a smoke as Ricardo came back from point to discuss with Basilio what he’d seen. As everyone hunkered down Esteban sat the prisoner, who looked at him with pure distain. He cut the apple in his rucksack in half, offering the larger piece to the prisoner, who coldly ripped it from Esteban’s hand using his teeth.
“We’ll be home soon, then you can rest” Esteban tried to remain humanistic despite the circumstances.
“This is my home” the prisoner said through a mouthful of fruity mush.
“You think Basilio knows where we’re going? What if we end up lost out here in the wilderness? We’ll be the laughingstock of the Nationalists!” Gael’s comments seemed more to reflect his entertainment at the idea of being lost while their country fought the most important war in its history, Esteban thought.
“Just think Gael, when we return we will be hailed as the lost squad that miraculously found its way home. Women will line up just to see us and men will congratulate us on a triumphant return.” Martinez’ booming voice carried across the valley, prompting a sharp hiss from Basilio.
“When I get home I’m gonna find a girl and teach her the meaning of miracles, hahaha!!!”
Esteban turned to avoid their disgusting peasant chatter. He was a silent type, like Sozimo, and didn’t mind walking with the gentle giant and the gagged prisoner, whom Esteban guessed wouldn’t say much anyways even if he was free to do so. They didn’t have such gross miscreants in his neighbourhood in Madrid.
His father had thought he might make a fine officer, however those plans, along with Esteban’s education, were curtailed when the war began and the young man found himself an unwilling “volunteer” pressed into the front line. The men he fell alongside barely had any discipline and if not for Basilio Esteban would’ve deserted long ago and hidden out in some far fantastical locale by the coast.
Esteban respected their leader though they rarely enjoyed any form of communication apart from orders. He seemed very intelligent for a peasant and his service with France’s Foreign Legion had proved him a most excellent soldier. Ricardo clung to him like a son to a father and tried to prove himself a worthy apprentice. Basilio allowed though certainly did not encourage this and Esteban often found himself and the others the victims of Ricardo’s frustrations from their lacking acceptance of him as heir-apparent to the Moroccan.
Basilio was pointing at a crossroads. From an immediate gaze one would have chosen the left fork, which led to a nice series of roads no doubt taking them back to their lines. The other led to a marshy area where fog was beginning to roll in. An obvious choice, if you wanted to wander to death in a filthy maze, Esteban thought.
“We go right.” Basilio’s order stimulated Esteban’s disgust at what they were forced to do to survive. No communist snipers would follow them into the dark swamp if they could avoid it; more certain than Esteban was that he preferred mud to a firefight.
“What?! I’m not marching through some damn swamp! If I’m going to retreat I’m going to do it like a man, damned be all if I make it or not!” Gael’s outcry caused all to turn, with Basilio’s anger matched closely by Ricardo’s.
“Look you stupid bastard your commander gave you an order! Now follow it or we’ll execute you for treason!” He was interjected by Martinez, the bigger man easily overshadowing him in front of Gael, their usual formation.
“Back off you chickenshit, I also think the hills are a better choice.”
Sozimo grunted his agreement.
“This isn’t a democracy. We go through the swamp, end of discussion.” Basilio’s commanding presence made them all self-conscious, though hardly tame.
“Fuck you! We didn’t appoint you leader, if you want to take this bastard through those damned marshes be my guest.” Gael spoke from behind Martinez, waving at the prisoner. Esteban used this moment to speak his own mind.
“It’ll be shorter to get back.” They all turned and looked at the little intellectual; even the prisoner cast a side-ways glance at him.
“It’s not that deep and we’ve been through worse. In the hills we’ll be going up and down everywhere, it’ll be days before we get back. If we go through the swamp it’ll be only one night.”
They all paused to consider this, Basilio gave Esteban a grateful nod and the citizen-soldier managed a lopsided grin in response.
“I guess it would be easier overall, it’s just a damned swamp ain’t it?” Martinez proposed. Sozimo looked at his poorly-wrapped aching arm and nodded. Gael only crossed his arms and looked away. “I still would rather walk than swim…” He felt their glances rest upon him and shrugged. “Whatever. If we’re gonna go then let’s be going” and he headed into the murky lands. Esteban sighed to himself and gently tugged the prisoner after his comrades.
The squishy mud and sloshing water felt like something come alive to Ricardo. He had no interest whatsoever in taking this route, even if it meant faster travel, he only agreed because Basilio thought it best. It wasn’t blind devotion he had to the old man, Basilio was experienced, hardened and most of all more committed than the others to this campaign. He had seen days of struggle to make Spain a better land and had been through the worst for it. Exiled to the Foreign Legion it was only his incredible skills (and one or two highly-decorated actions) that allowed him back into the country. When the war between Franco and the government had broken out it was no surprise whose side Basilio was on.
Ricardo pledged himself to the man. He emulated everything needed in a leader for this country. While the world suffocated under the Depression, men like Basilio forced the painful steps forward to overcoming human idiocy and weakness. Thoughts like these kept Ricardo pushing ahead of the others, even when Gael and Martinez fell back. They were the strongest in the group but Ricardo knew he could make up for his shortcomings with determination and endurance. His would be the steps that blazed the trail to their success, swamp or no swamp.
As he pictured himself racing to be the first back, Basilio called for a rest. It had been hours and their progress had brought them into the depths of the marsh. At this rate they’d be out before the sun rose.
“Take some water, relieve yourselves, no smoking.” Basilio was all-business as usual and Ricardo saw his chance to impress the man further.
As he walked, noting Gael and Martinez’ complete disregard to the no-smoking order (“This place is filled with mist anyways, a little smoke’s not gonna look out of place”) Ricardo paused to see Esteban giving the prisoner some bread and cheese. Ill-learned middle-class twit, Ricardo thought. It was men like Esteban, boys really, that held back progress. They spent too much time reading books and trying to think about the world’s problems, they couldn’t see the need for action here and now. Ricardo spat in Esteban’s direction and marched over to Basilio’s side, where he belonged.
“What?” the leather-faced Moroccan inquired.
“Sir, permission to scout ahead. I will return once I’ve found the quickest way out and we’ll be through before the enemy knows we’ve entered the place.”
“Hmm… I doubt they’d follow us even if they bothered to track us in here. We shouldn’t exert ourselves.”
Basilio’s shameful comment destroyed Ricardo’s spirit. He’d been so focused on his own merit he didn’t see the common sense Basilio possessed so well. His face hung in personal disgust.
“…But perhaps checking the trail will garner a drier route. Permission granted.” Basilio might have noticed the man’s disappointment or perhaps he was just being cautious, either way Ricardo’s heart sang at the chance and he quickly splashed out of their midst.
Esteban loosened the ropes on the prisoner’s hands to allow the man to take a much-needed piss break. As he waited alongside the tree where the prisoner relieved himself Basilio headed over.
“How’s the captive doing?” He didn’t bother to look at the man.
“Fine sir. He’ll make it back ok. I just dunno how much he’ll talk…”
“You leave that to the guys back home. They have… methods.” Basilio put a reassuring hand on Esteban’s shoulder then went to chew out Gael and Martinez, who were on their third and fifth cigarettes respectively.
“I guess they do.” Esteban sighed. He longed to be done with these times. Whatever happened to man’s common desire for peace? The world had become such an evil place. Esteban couldn’t remember a day he hadn’t heard of some conflict around the world springing up. Civil wars across Russia, Germany and now here, the darkness of the world seemed to come to life in the marsh around Esteban. He could almost hear whispers of the devil tormenting the group. He prayed they’d be out before too long.
As he thought this he noticed Sozimo crouched nearby, whispering in Latin and holding a rosary. The man’s unshakeable beliefs impressed Esteban, himself a born Catholic who rarely went to church. The quiet man had a devotion fading in the world. Thoughts of Sozimo praying on battlefields, for comrades and enemies alike, made Esteban wonder if his own lack of faith was what made him so unsure of himself in these troubled times.
As he turned away wondering at the prisoner’s exceptionally large bladder he was horrified to discover the rope around the man’s neck was the only thing still remaining by the tree, swinging tauntingly in the cool breeze.
Basilio raced ahead trying to keep pace without losing the man’s trail. It was a foolish thing to run off into a swamp where no amount of skill could hide the steps one left, and the prisoner was in no state to carefully conceal his tracks. The others ran behind, lagging further and further back as the broad-shouldered Moroccan somehow avoided the roots and shrubs that sent the others sprawling every few feet. The sun-burnt old man was proud of his years of training in the harshest of environments where he always found ways to come out on top. The images of the trenches and back-woods of France torn by shelling twenty years earlier came flashing back as though he’d never left them, and his muscles smiled in the remembrance of equally sure-footed strides taken there, beset by barbed wire and machine-gun fire.
In split-seconds he twisted and wormed around obstacles that would have left any other man tired. In his mind the old days of racing through No Man’s Land were stark and even now he could see with almost clarity the ruins of small villages as the red bursts of lights reflected off the faces of comrades wet with spilt blood of the enemy. Flashes of torn limbs and mutilated figures began to appear, almost real…
They were real.
Basilio froze. Coming to a dead halt he gazed at the remains before him, not believing. He’d seen men destroyed by bullets, fire and even gas, but this sight still shocked him all the more. He fell to his knees at the shredded remains of Ricardo shining with moonlight. Only his head was still intact, the rest was a mess of organs, bones and above all blood, so crimson and serene that it was as if Ricardo had simply opened up and hung himself on a tree. No signs abounded of struggle. Basilio, veteran of untold numbers of bloody campaigns and disgusting corpses, threw up all over the ground.
Echoes of voices surrounded him in a tormenting cascade, he wanted to pierce his ears and be rid of the sounds, the smells now invading his personal being. He looked up at the moon and arched his hands, fingers straining to clasp it and shut out the light that revealed the horror before him.
“Basilio? Sir?!” Esteban came breaking out of the bush, Gael hot on his heels, and they paused when they saw the Moroccan in the dirt, arms reaching to the heavens.
“Uh, sir, you ok?” Gael’s question went unanswered (or perhaps not) as they gazed on Ricardo’s remains.
“Oh shit!” Gael promptly turned and vomited into the bush while Esteban went white with shock.
“We… we found the prisoner… he’s… they… oh God…” Esteban collapsed next to his leader as Martinez and Sozimo made their way to them, man-handling their captive to the bloodbath.
They threw the prisoner down next to a tree while Esteban attempted to build a fire. The man’s face shone purple as flecks of blood from Martinez’ knuckles dotted the welts upon it. His assaulter sat down by himself as Gael paced around, murmuring about “fucking bastards” and “damned sons-of-bitches”. Esteban struggled to strike his matches but his hands shook so much that he gave up and sat shivering. Basilio hadn’t returned from Ricardo’s body and Esteban tried to believe he was burying him, though it was impossible to do so. Sozimo was nowhere to be seen.
“That disgusting, fucking, son of a BITCH!!!” Gael kicked his canteen over and it bounced off the tree near the prisoner’s head. The man didn’t react; he was too spent from his beating.
“I knew we shouldn’t have come into this goddamned swamp! Now looks what’s happened! Ricardo’s decorating the god-damned place and we’re more lost than ever!”
Esteban said nothing, just stared straight ahead. He wanted to go home, back to his parents and the girl he loved – Celina – away from the horrors of war.
“…I don’t see why we don’t do it ourselves.” With a flash Gael’s knife appeared and he strode towards the prisoner, the silvery sheen threateningly bright. In an instant Martinez was on him.
“Let me go! I’m gonna kill him right now and be done with it!!!”
Esteban snapped out of his fervor and rushed to help.
“Gael put it down! Basilio said not to! We don’t even know if he did it!”
“Who the fuck else could it be?! We’re alone out here! Get off me! I want to slit his throat!”
Esteban could see the prisoner looking up at them. His eyes were fierce, daring Gael to kill him. But he wouldn’t have the satisfaction.
“Enough of this!” Basilio and Sozimo returned at once, brandishing their rifles. Gael stopped and looked at them angrily.
“But look what he did to Ric-… To Ricar-…” He couldn’t get out their fallen comrade’s name.
“He was too far away and it would’ve taken a much longer time to… do what happened to Ricardo. We have to keep moving, if we don’t, I don’t want whatever did it to find us. We stay together from now on. And the prisoner is NOT to be let out of sight. Understand?!”
Gael glared at him, with Esteban and Martinez holding on tight. Finally he spit and relaxed. The two released him and he sheathed his knife.
“I still think he ought to die…”
He stomped over to grab his things. Esteban sighed and looked at Martinez.
“Thanks for stopping him.”
“Pah, if I could have my way that guy’d be in more pieces than Ricardo. Fuck this, all of this.”
He marched off, leaving Esteban looking down at their pathetic captive.
Martinez spit tobacco to the side of the trail. It made a satisfying splash and he chewed another bit. He felt good after laying into the prisoner and wondered how he might get another chance. True, Ricardo had been no friend of his but the way he’d met his end… no one should have to go through that. No comrade at least. As he took position ahead of the others in the dead man’s usual spot Martinez began to feel the supremacy over the others Ricardo no doubt felt when he was in the front. It felt good to have their lives in his hands. If he saw a trap or enemy they’d have no knowledge unless he warned them, it’d be simple to slip aside and watch them all fall victim, tempting even.
Martinez was no stranger to misguiding folks. Born in the slums of Barcelona he’d grown up being betrayed and learning the art of the con to survive. Even when he joined up he’d lied about who he was and felt comfortable being allowed to kill those he disliked. It wasn’t so much the constant violence he enjoyed as the power that came with it. He didn’t need rank to tell others what to do or see them cower before him. It was an easy ticket to the top when you had brains to go with brawn. He enjoyed pillaging, raping and bullying and had earned quite a reputation as a go-getter who would get the job done. It was this more than his charming personality that had made him an indispensable asset to the group.
Now that most of them were dead it was about time to strike for a better position. Basilio was a good leader and an agreeable aged soul, but that was the thing – he was old. Too old for the bright future men like Martinez would win. He’d studied men like Mussolini and Hitler and knew they were the kind who could take charge of broken nations and lead them back to glory. Spain had lost most of hers but after seeing Franco’s cause Martinez knew his was the way and he sought to plant himself into the middle of it.
Another murder wouldn’t be out of place in this swamp. Basilio might go far ahead or maybe a noise might alert him to some unseen danger. When the moment was right, Martinez would strike, then gain notice as the one who led the group out – and place himself high on the list of interest to others.
The group paused to re-tie the prisoner, discovering the man had a knack for undoing his bonds. This time they were lucky and spotted it before he’d managed to escape, again. Basilio took it upon himself to personally secure the ropes and Martinez saw the perfect opportunity to prepare his ambush.
“I’ll scout ahead and ensure the trail’s safe. Don’t worry; I’ll be right around the corner. Gael, come watch over me.”
To Basilio’s begrudging satisfaction Gael stood by smoking as Martinez checked the path. As he suspected there was a bend coming: a nice spot to lure Basilio away. Martinez would set some sort of bait and wait until the right moment. It was perfect.
Gael was too occupied with his wet matches to notice the big man slip into the bush. Martinez made his way to a nice clearing where he found multiple places to hide the body. He felt giddy at the thought and began to set his trap.
“What are you doing?” Basilio’s unmistakable Moroccan accent suddenly cut through the undergrowth.
Well well, thought Martinez, better now than never. He turned smiling to the victim of his latest ploy, only to discover to his horror that it was not Basilio.
“Where the hell is Martinez? It’s been half an hour! Gael, come here dammit!”
The lanky man sauntered over, not bothering to hide the smoke in his mouth as Basilio barked at him.
Gael shrugged. “I’m not his keeper.”
“Damn it!” Basilio smacked the cigarette out of Gael’s mouth and ordered them on the move. Esteban’s feet were beginning to hurt and it didn’t help that none of them were taking recent events seriously, or perhaps they were, too seriously.
Gael and Martinez had acted like nothing had happened, and though there was no love lost between them and Ricardo it bugged Esteban that they didn’t even take care now that the group was being threatened. On the other hand, Sozimo and Basilio seemed far too attentive. Basilio jumped at every twig snapping and Sozimo would stare fixedly at anything that swayed in the breeze. Esteban didn’t know who he could feel more comfortable with.
So he stayed with the prisoner, wiping mud and blood from his face. The man gave him a questioning look but Esteban smiled sadly and apologized. If it had been up to him there would be no fighting. Sadly no one saw it his way and it led to him being rather dour most times. But in this place Esteban felt himself desiring a calming presence and thought if he could be that for the others then they might make their way out of this hell unmolested any further.
The prisoner tried to say something and, checking to ensure they were out of earshot, Esteban loosened his gag.
“Why are you so kind to me? Your friend is dead thanks to me…”
“You didn’t kill him, we know that. We’re just tired and afraid. But if you are killed before we get back it’ll all be for nought. Plus… you’re just a soldier like me; I’d want the same if I was taken captive.”
The prisoner gave him an unsettling look. “This is not the place for kindness. This swamp, it’s not natural…”
Esteban stared at him but the prisoner looked ahead, not continuing. He went to replace the gag.
“My name, it’s Kemen. …I used to run around this swamp when I was younger. Never so deep though. My parents warned me that anyone who ran too far in never came back.”
Esteban stopped walking. The prisoner coolly turned towards him.
“You will die here.”
Those words sunk into Esteban’s chest and stayed, even after Basilio whistled at him to keep up as he re-gagged Kemen.
They found Martinez the same as they’d found Ricardo. This time there were no displays of emotion or puking; they simply turned and ripped off Kemen’s gag, thrusting him against a tree.
“Who the fuck are you working with?! ANSWER ME!” Basilio lost his cool and as the gory display of Martinez hung behind them, dripping in the moonlight, everyone tried to avert their eyes. They were alert now and desensitized to the horrors that can be done to the human body. But the psychological game being played in their minds was a different battle altogether.
“I asked you a fucking question!!!” Basilio shoved the prisoner back and held his pistol to the man’s throat, but all he did was glare back.
“I will KILL you if you don’t answer me!” At this the prisoner slowly smiled and whispered so that Esteban could barely hear.
“You are all going to die. You are sinners and this place drowns sinners. It is God’s will and there is nothing you can do to stop it.”
They hung on his words for a moment, as if an ugly truth had been revealed. Then Basilio’s clenched hand came across the prisoner’s face and he left the captive rolling in the mud. Turning to wipe the sweat from his brow, it left a smear of blood.
“We have to get out of this place before this fucker’s friends kill all of us. I think it’s best if me and Sozimo take the prisoner out, you two will have to go back.”
“Are you crazy?!” Gael’s voice echoed around the clearing.
“Don’t question me! I’ve been through a lot worse than you and I intend to see this man get to the base in one piece so help me God. You gotta go back and warn everyone that there’s a trap being laid here for us.”
“You’re out of your mind!” Gael looked at Sozimo and Esteban, begging with his eyes for someone to speak out. Basilio was talking nonsense; perhaps the swamp had gotten to him, but neither Esteban nor Sozimo were willing to question their leader who had never before led them astray.
“…Please?” Gael’s question hung in the air. Finally he dropped it, defeated, and sauntered down the path.
Sozimo felt scared leaving the two behind. His arm hurt worse than ever and Basilio seemed to be on his last legs. They’d seen awful things, yet Sozimo wondered what could possibly have put his commander so far on the edge. As their companions disappeared he thought it prudent to bring the topic up.
“Is something the matter Basilio?” They’d been together longer than anyone else and Sozimo hoped his commander and friend hadn’t turned against him as well.
“It’s just…” Basilio looked around nervously, and then at the prisoner, before looking back and talking in a hushed tone.
“You remember when we attacked that village? With the large bell tower?”
Sozimo nodded. They’d believed it was a strongpoint when in reality it was a quiet civilian town with no soldiers in sight. Nonetheless it was razed. Basilio hadn’t said much but Sozimo wondered whether it hadn’t been playing on his mind as much as it had on Sozimo’s.
“I’m just wondering if… this is ridiculous, but what if we ARE being punished by God? For our sins… There, we…” He stopped, unwilling to recount the evils they had committed. He shook his head and continued.
“It doesn’t matter. I will see us through this, to the bitter end. Damned if need be.”
They continued in silence.
Images of the event began to creep into Sozimo’s mind. Women, children, butchered for the sake of proving their worth to the higher ups. Sozimo felt sick and clutched his rifle. He could hear the sounds of crying all around, as if the swamp itself was screaming at him…
Gael would not shut up. Esteban tried to take his mind off the fact they were going backwards and focus, but though they’d crossed this area before it was unrecognizable.
“How dare a lowly colonial make us walk back this hellish way to be captured and face a fate worse than Ricardo’s and Martinez’, it’s insufferable!”
It seemed Gael’s method to avoid their fates was to yell about it as loud as he could. Esteban missed Kemen’s company and wished he could’ve gone with Basilio, unsteady as he was.
“We’d never have this back in the day, no sir! We’d have sent him and all his no-good compatriots home to Africa!” Gael had the distinguished misfortune of having served with the Spanish army before the war and it was no secret he was distained by the fascists for representing everything they were against. He was obnoxious, lazy, and worst of all unpatriotic.
“I want to leave this damn country and go to America or even Russia where they don’t put up with this bullshit!”
“Have you ever been out of Spain Gael?”
“Uh… Oh shut up will you I can’t think!” He struck up a match and sucked in the precious smoke of his last cigarette.
Esteban became more aware of the sounds of the swamp as they walked and Gael complained. It seemed to be watching them, threatening them for having desecrated its lands with their intrusive presence.
“Do you feel bad about Martinez?”
“I mean, he was your friend, don’t you, I dunno, have some remorse?”
“Ha! That idiot deserved what he got. Played at being the perfect soldier when all he wanted was for everyone to bow down to him. I have no ‘remorse’ whatsoever.”
Gael paused as his cigarette fell, then reached for another, but he was out.
“Damn. Hey Esteban, you got any?”
“Sorry, gave my last one to Kemen.”
Esteban realised his mistake. Unfortunately so did Gael.
“You gave our fucking smokes to the prisoner?! What’s the matter with you you idiot?!” He shoved Esteban down and stomped off.
“Wait! Gael! Come back!!!” Esteban ran after him, but the swamp seemed to close in and soon the echoes of Gael’s words were all that remained. Esteban stopped, panting. Lost and alone, he unshouldered his rifle and started again after Gael.
“Gael? Come back! I didn’t mean to do it-!”
He froze. Ahead something red glinted in the moonlight. Flashes of previous encounters rooted Esteban’s feet to the ground. It wasn’t true. He’d only been gone minutes; nothing could have done THAT in only-
Esteban took tentative steps then his ears heard the rifle splash into the muck around his feet. The red strands of bowels and skin stretched from branch to branch. The gore seemed impossible, too fast for a human to accomplish. Yet here it was: Gael, like the others, strung up along the tree with his head the only recognizable feature, staring in horror at whatever had attacked him. Esteban was shaking so much he felt like falling to his knees, but he stiffened at the sound of someone approaching behind…
Sozimo ran as fast as his legs could go. Chased by the ghosts of dead men, women and children, he’d seen them grab Bastilio after firing uselessly at them. The prisoner bolted and, against his will, Sozimo had too, leaving Basilio to his fate. The swamp swarmed him in all directions and he was more lost than ever, yet still he ran. Like the Moroccan he dodged and jumped over trips that would’ve felled any clumsier man, and yet still he could not outrun those faces he’d seen before, hell-bent on committing the same acts to him that they had received.
He tripped, on what he didn’t know, and fell onto his wounded arm, crying out as the pain shot up. He clutched it as the shadows swirled around him and closed in. Sozimo shut his eyes and raised his good arm, the rosary dangling from his wrist.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Take your deserved revenge! Take me and give balance to the lord!!!”
His cries softened as the shadows blackened out the silver light of the moon.
Celina stroked his face gently, caressing it like she had so many times before.
The soldier shook from head to toe, unable to comprehend. Here she was, beautiful as always, radiantly glowing silver, like the moon which her parents had named her after. Esteban’s memories of golden days with her at the university shone through, bordered by the red stain of what he had done.
“Celina…” he felt like a sinner even speaking her name, yet she smiled as if in recognition and stroked his hair fondly.
“You cut it so short” her thin voice chirped, “I remember how I used to run my fingers through the strands. Do you remember? When we would walk down Calle Mayor at night and dance in the light of the lanterns?”
Esteban nodded, tears flowing down his face. Here she was, just as he remembered her. Beautiful and kind, he didn’t deserve her.
“I really miss you. I wonder how you’ve been since you left the city.”
He couldn’t take it anymore. Esteban fell to his knees and grasped at her dress, crying like a child.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry Celina! I loved you; I didn’t mean for you to die!!!”
The memories came flooding back…
The dark night, the horse-drawn carriage, his plot to take her from her cruel father…
The horrific truth: they had switched sides in the carriage at the last moment and his bullet struck her instead…
Fleeing the city, attempting to take his own life, finding refuge in Franco’s army…
It was all a blur. Only now, in her very real light did Esteban finally feel the weight of his deed come crushing down.
She stroked his cheek and he looked up to see not Celina but the face of a demon looking deep into his soul.
“You are full of sin Esteban. But unlike those you followed you are also full of regret and shame, and the desire to make things right. You are a rare one indeed. Never give in to ignorance, no matter how dark the road.”
With that, the figure vanished, leaving Esteban alone once again in the swamp.
Kemen saw the whole episode. He’d remained out of sight as he had with Basilio’s death; the Moroccan falling victim to those he’d refuse to grant mercy to in his wars. Now Kemen saw his chance to finish off the last of these disgusting fascists who’d destroyed his village and whom he’d baited into his swamp.
“There will only be peace, when you all lie dead!”
Esteban turned and to Kemen’s surprise did not attempt to protect himself against the knife the prisoner had taken off Gael’s body, or what remained of it.
“Kemen. I’m sorry. I wish I could’ve done something to save them. We were wrong, war is always wrong. We have to find a way to stop it, before the world is destroyed by our idiocy.”
“Sweet words, but they won’t change anything. Nothing will change as long as people like you are allowed to live!” And he swung with full force to end Esteban’s life, but found himself stopped by a strong arm.
As Kemen turned to his horror the shadowy figure of Sozimo threw him across the puddle. Kemen spat out the vile taste of moss. “How?! I saw them go after you!”
“The first step in facing the evils of this world is to judge yourself. And forgive.”
Sozimo held up the rosary and Kemen saw, carved in tiny letters, the name of the village they had wiped from the Earth.
“I will never give in to the hatred of others, even if I must die to ensure our crimes are remembered.”
Sozimo’s words struck Kemen and he saw a memory of the big quiet man and Esteban standing together in front of the others in his village, yelling at Gael, Martinez, Ricardo, even Basilio to stop the crimes. As the swamp’s shadows closed in around him the moon lit up the faces of the fascists before him who, despite all misgivings, chose not to give in to sin but strive to repent. Theirs stood out among the faces of the others whom Kemen had brought to die in this swamp but now carried his soul to join them.
The morning sun shone sweet gold to replace the moon’s silvery sheen. Esteban helped Sozimo out of the swamp. They panted as the day began to warm their weary bodies. In the distance they could hear shouting and saw their remnant units running to join them.
As they headed up to their comrades both made a secret pledge to leave the army and spend their lives healing the wounds they’d caused, to those they loved and those they’d never met. They joined their comrades on the hilltop and began to speak of their misadventure of the night; only to turn and see the swamp they’d entered was little more than a small bog, with the bodies of five Spaniards face down in the water, drowned in sin.
From the western Canadian prairies Garrett Scott came to Toronto to pursue a career as a writer. Stories of all lengths and mediums have netted him publications, finalist positions and prizes with Chaleur Magazine, Quattro Books’ Ken Klonsky Contest, Tree of Life’s 360 Festival, both the University of Lethbridge’s top writing awards and more! His latest work can be found on his Facebook page “Garrett Mallory Scott.”