I remember the day we died together on the green river in every single detail. It is not a memory or a dream, but a repeated reality. I turn away to repeat it like a mantra when everything in this war seems so hopeless.
I am the river and the river is me. Papa is me and I, Papa. I am the river and the river is me. Papa is me and I, Papa.
Our boat moves slowly despite the danger, the authorities pursuing us down both banks. I take a single thick hair of your moustaches between my teeth, you smile and I feel its bulge against my bulge and we gaze at the same rolling dark green waters and the waters gaze back at us. This airy bliss is our death.
But soon, our cheeks are torn apart to play out other scenes by uniformed arms. Our roles? I play the Madonna. You, Christ’s soldier. The setting? A country where all religious beliefs are outlawed.
Since our green river day, I have become a teacher and nurse, rearing more soldiers for “beloved leader” to deploy, then caring for them when injured and dying. This is my way of being myself.
One day Papa, a city plaza is bombed from the air. Spindly death machines swing through space, their bombs are kicked off rusting underbodies by pert jackboots. The wounded are my pupils so we bundle them and their limbs into the hospital ship and leave dock immediately. The aerial pests shipwreck us and we become specks in the flaming ocean!
I help an injured soldier to keep afloat, holding him on to a black spherical mine. His blood spills out, his legs are pulp below the waves but eventually, the enemy-swarm moves on to other flowers.
We sleep, then wake with a start to check our pale grip. The soldier’s time is up so he pulls aside his studded collar to reveal a chain, dragging it up to show a beautiful crucifix, encrusted with gems; a glorification of God, number one enemy of the state!
He hands it to me, asking me to use it to get through the madness of this war. He calls me ‘Madonna,’ asking for my blessing so he can go to ‘heaven.’ I put it on quickly for fear it will sink like everything else and when I look back at him he has slid away.
Now, I am the only survivor bobbing on this black bauble, but I’m aware of my fingers moving slowly towards the crucifix. And then suddenly Papa, I see our wooden boat, the green body of the river moving steadily with it, and feel our cheeks resting together.
Now I completely understand the difference between sea-water and fresh-water. A great river is a large body, a substantial limb, while the ocean is many smaller bodies, made menacing by salt.
The crucifix wakes me. I take it in my fingers.
‘Papa, do I feel something watching me, protecting me? Is it you? Can this encrusted metal shape make me feel something? I have been trained to know that this is a phantasy and yet I can hear you saying, ‘Must we believe that there is nothing else except birth and death and suffering, and working for others in between? Nothing held in the wonders of nature and weather. Nothing more than H2O in a heartfelt tear?’
With such salty questions asked and allowed to evaporate, I find myself in a hot apple orchard in the mountains. The villagers have locked themselves into their houses in the valley because the enemy is near, but we, another fatherless daughter and me, are picking the apples before they drop and spoil. Authoritative foreign voices shout to each other below.
We listen, the still crucifix inside my blouse. The gipsies come, talking loudly, petitioning the officer. They have no fear, living in a flurry of violin vibrations and scintillating tambourine cymbals. Momentarily, the officer seems clasped by their hope, as we are, but then he dismisses them goose-stepping away.
They become silent, except for a small voice, shaking her quarter-size tambourine. She does not stop even when the machine gun is cocked. And even as it fires.
The rapid volley slaughters the adults. His fellow officers rebuke him but he laughs, saying, ‘Nobody in their right mind needs a gipsy.’ The small remaining gipsy has never learned fear or choked down the lessons of ‘time’ or ‘space’ or ‘form’ and she never will.
He spots the abundance of our orchard and swivelling his gun onto his back, starts to climb the hill. I stand rooted behind the green apple spheres but he finds my face hidden behind one especially large fruit.
He drags me down the hill looking for somewhere dark and muffled. In the barn, I escape his tight grip and run on ahead. He stalks me among the dark hay stalls but Papa I am saved. My ‘daughter’ friend is waiting with a pitchfork to pin his greedy eyes to the timbers. In time, his friends come looking for him and we finish the remnant enemy off.
And again, I feel the crucifix dangling between my perspiring breasts and again I feel some benevolent vigilance. I can even become the blessed apples themselves, just as I am you and our green luscious river! The agonized crucifix is somehow bringing me to an otherness.
At night, the battalion has moved on, so we start to walk, talking little so I can go to our river and check your cheek and eventually, in the middle of a burned hay field, we see the surprise of a basilica. It is deserted, the treasures pilfered, apart from the glorious Madonna in copper and bronze hanging high above the ruined altar.
We fill a tin bath with fresh water and harvest illegal ‘Our Lord’s Candle’ flowers growing nearby to make frothy shampoo. We scrub and cut out the combs from our matted hair. I remove the crucifix while I wash but it catches the light from the highest dome, reflecting the beautiful paintings inside and making us envious.
One day, I return from collecting blueberries, but see that the uniforms have found our holy camp. Prosaic bicycles thrown down hurriedly, a boneshaker motorbike and sidecar with warm tyres block the main double doors meant to receive robed processions and choristers.
As I move by night and sleep by day, tying myself high in a tree, ‘Papa I can feel you near! You are here, perhaps looking for me, perhaps to experiment with God.’
I end up back at the wheat field to see our basilica reduced to dust but the wondrous Madonna still hanging untouched and I know you were there stealing my combs in your filthy clothes.
Later, as I crouch by a stream munching on stale cakes from a bombed bakery, I hear a plane shot down. The crucifix becomes hot on my breast and I start to look for survivors.
I spot the burning plane wedged in rubble, shouting for survivors. Someone groans. Lifting away tin sheets and timbers, I find the pilot, leaning upright against the exposed bones of the matchstick plane.
I move in front of him. He tries to speak but his larynx is burned and only squeaks. I bandage his hand, inject him with morphine and as I reach around his wide chest with bandages, his eye fills with light. The unburned cheek bulges with a smile and he indicates something beneath my blouse with a nod leaving my eyes very briefly.
We both stop, acknowledging the crucifix, smiling to have shared it illegally. His broken lips ask me to show him what lies below it, deliriously enunciating the word ‘Heaven!’ ‘Heaven,’ another officially eradicated disease.
I begin to unveil my beauty to him freely, wondering if this is what prostitutes feel like behind glass? Morphine? Opium? What does it matter? He mouths the word ‘Madonna,’ repeatedly.
‘Papa, I have never felt so beautiful since that moment against you on the green river.’
I slowly undress, pulling multiple layers over my head, letting the plumpness of my breasts drop, the gleaming broken body of Christ lying across my breastbone caked in gold and gems.
My eyes return from inspecting myself to see if I am fully revealed to him, anticipating his joy like a beacon in his pain. But his eye is fixed, his mouth open as if about to speak. And a thin rivulet of saliva trickles down into the rubble and blood at his feet.
I remain still as wet snow starts to drop, aware that I am the only sentient being in this metallic-asbestoid scene.
Towards the end of the war, I find my regiment and put on my uniform again, but cannot be promoted for my work with triage because I can no longer speak to tell the authorities. We are camped on a hilltop near the enemy bunker, anticipating the reprisal in the trenches below.
‘Papa, the green river has never faded despite 12 years of daily horrors.’ It is the only reality, pinned against the sacred crucifix and the Madonna.
Opposite, the enemy spies through gun slits and plays gramophone records of mighty Wagner and Beethoven. Down in the valley, we see civilian men walking up in the direction of the bunker, moving confidently holding stout sticks. We wonder if we are dreaming as full symphony orchestras mount towards their climaxes? Then, more and more civilians appear with an army of accordion players, drowning out Arian goddesses with gipsy folk music.
‘I actually see you Papa in your full regalia as colonel at this moment. You are leading the surge of people moving steadily up the hill. I run, bursting out of the arms of my comrades, shouting at the top of my lungs, the first time I have uttered a sound from my mouth for several years. “Bapa!!”‘
At first, you do not hear me, glancing casually at the jackrabbit careering down the hill in your direction. But then you match fragments of sound and shape, realizing that it is your river daughter in the flesh. And you start to run on uneven boggy ground, your eyes lighting up, the tears rising.
We get closer, you slowing down, aware of some danger that I am not, me running on unbridled, always a child. And as we meet, you hold me still at arm’s length, trying to calm me enough to make me look down at my feet. I look down and realize that your jackboot is resting on one of my boots, which in turn has depressed the detonator of a land mine.
‘You speak urgently but calmly Papa, as always.’
No time to let the tears flood or our cheeks lock together. One of us will be blown up and you are determined it will not be me. You reach into your breast pocket and bring out my comb from the basilica, saying you knew I had been there with the Madonna.
Then, you order me in military fashion to lift my foot out of my boot and step away. Shout at me to turn and walk back up the hill, slowly and quietly without disturbing the ground. I protest again, trying to spit out words that have congested my body for so long.
I turn from the glorious site of you and we both wince at a huge explosion up at the bunker. One of your snipers with a working gun high in a tree has picked off the main bombardier and set off a chain reaction detonating all the ammunition stored there. The enemy is annihilated and I have found my papa, all in one of ‘time’s’ precious baubles!
As I slowly climb back up the hill, away from you and you make to move, you know that you will detonate the mine! If one moment can contain both the zenith and nadir of two lives, this is it.
You wait for me on the green river while it is clear that I must be a Madonna guiding my people to reality for some ‘form’ and ‘time’ and ‘space’ yet to come.
Images by Japanese artist Mariko Kinoshita and megapixyl