- Sci-fi comic about ancient things people find in melting icebergs
THE BUGS BELOW
That village wasn’t on the map. It didn’t look like a temporary camp - the houses were all stone - but it wasn’t on the map! Where an empty place was on the paper, a bare riverbank, in reality, was a pretty little settlement buzzing with life and joy as if the war hadn’t touched it! Apple trees were in full bloom. Children played. Chimneys smoked… someone was making bread, judging by the smell. A herd of ginger cows browsed downstream…
I glanced back at my soldiers. All young enough to be my sons. All dirty and tired. Behind them, the sky was coloured grey and crimson from the distant flames of war.
The unmapped village just kept living its life as if it didn’t care. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Through the binoculars, the view was even more serene. Not even a shadow of fear or grief on those people’s faces! They smiled, they laughed, they chattered, not a care in the world!
I saw many villages on our way, some burned to the ground, some barely surviving… scrawny, dirty children eating dandelions, women doing all the heavy work because there were no men left. But this place… what was going on there?
There were twenty boys with me. All that was left from the eighth company. We were to get to the northern post to be reassigned.
The journey wasn’t kind to us. I was the commander but only because I was twice older than the others. They looked up to me even though we all had the same rank. I’d always had a way with kids. I was a father of five, after all.
Whatever that strange village was, we couldn’t afford to be picky. We needed food, shelter, medical help, and directions. Between me and the map being right, I decided to bet on the map. We’d lost our way, that was all.
We descended into the valley and took the road. The wind changed. There were no more choking smells of war in it. The air was filled with the smells of home: of fresh bread, heated bathhouse, and something sweet, honey-like.
As we entered the village I stumbled on a water bucket like a fool and fell face-forward into the grass. My wounded head played a joke on me, probably, because it seemed that I’d spent a small eternity lying like that, watching myriads of bugs hustle on the ground below the canopy of grasses. Their hustle mesmerised me, lulled me… For a moment, I wanted nothing else but to remain there forever. How dead-tired I must’ve been!
Somebody helped me get up, somebody strong and fresh, obviously not one of my exhausted skinny boys.
Standing on my feet once again, I faced the stranger, a bulky bloke a whole head taller than me. His blond, shoulder-length hair was golden in the sun. His cheeks bore a healthy glow of a man who’d never known hunger. His eyes, azure-blue, were the eyes of a curious child.
“A soldier!” he grinned, excited. The way he looked at me reminded me of my youngest, when he was five and had seen an elephant in the zoo for the first time.
Am I a joke to you, you big goof? Why are you even here? No way you’re not of a conscription age yet! Half of my soldiers here are younger than you!
He kept ogling me; I became more and more pissed by the minute. Villagers were gathering around us, whispering something to one another. The blond fellow touched my rifle and I slapped his hand.
“Soldier!” he exclaimed in a slightly frightened voice.
“Soldier, soldier!” the others echoed in a worried chorus.
The blondy backed away, wary of me now and an old woman stepped forward. The way she looked surprised me even more. There were wrinkles on her face indeed and her hair was grey but the old age hadn’t disfigured her the way it had disfigured the old women I knew. She walked without a cane, with her back straight and her head held high. Her cheeks were rosy, her eyes - bright.
She walked past me and approached my boys.
“Are you hungry, my dears?” she asked amiably.
They eagerly nodded and followed her without even a thought about asking my permission first. So much for my leadership! I just stood there with my jaw dropped and watched the villagers split my little unit and lead my soldiers away by their sleeves like lost kids or by their hands if beautiful girls were involved. They followed, as meek and tame as lambs, leaving me alone with the blond guy.
“Come with me,” he said with a hearty smile. “You must be hungry too.”
I was! And not just hungry - starving! So I put my pride aside and walked where I was told to. Soon, the lad was no longer afraid of me and strode by my side like an old pal.
“My name’s Miroslav,” he introduced himself. “Yours?”
“Tihon.” I even shook his hand.
The last remnants of my enmity vanished as soon as I saw the food. I didn’t just eat it: I devoured it! Fresh bread, still warm, with leeks and salted lard. Sweet milk. Mushroom soup… I grew so bold as to ask for a glass of vodka after dinner but got nothing but bewildered looks from my host, his parents, and his little brothers. Okay, I got it. Thanks anyway.
I fell asleep minutes after dinner, right here at the table. There were no dreams, only blissful, quiet darkness and a feeling of perfect safety I had almost forgotten. I woke up with a start, disoriented, lost, haunted by recent memories of the war that completely eclipsed the memories about the unmapped village. I jumped to my feet…
A thick quilted blanket fell from my shoulders: someone had covered me, probably the woman of the house. I heard birds singing outdoors and an old clock ticking in the room and my heart stopped racing. I was safe. Safe, indeed. But for how long?
I sat down again. There was a simple lunch waiting for me on the table: a small loaf of bread and a cup of milk covered by a towel. I ate my lunch alone. The clock ticked seconds away, the birds kept singing. A sweet, rich aroma of burning firewood - pine, most likely - started seeping into the house from the outside. Someone was heating a bathhouse! Oh my… how long had it been since I had a proper bath? I couldn’t remember. My clothes were crusty with dried mud and blood.
It wasn’t long before Miroslav appeared at the doorstep, grinned from ear to ear, and motioned to me to follow him. It wasn't like I needed a guide, I could’ve just followed the bathhouse’s aroma and smoke.
On my way, I met my soldiers, all of them. Happy, clean, clad in fresh clothes… I barely recognized the boys. Later, after a hot bath, I could barely recognize myself! And that wasn’t the only change.
For an evening, my sense of duty had failed me. Under the smoke-streaked and crimson-highlighted sky, the sky of war, I danced with the villagers. I smiled and sang without a care in the world. I felt so safe that I’d nearly lost myself.
That night, I could not sleep, for I was burning alive, engulfed in shame of what I had become. I threw the cosy feeling of safety away and cursed my weakness. How could I? The war was on! I had to be out there, fighting for my country, for my family’s future. How could I dance and sing when my homeland was burning? How dared I?
Time dragged; the clock’s ticking grated on my nerves; the warmth of the house seemed suffocating. I needed a breath of fresh air, desperately. So I went outside. The night was cool and breezy. There was no moon, no stars, and no one to see me. I gave way to emotions or, rather, they sneaked at me and struck me with full force when I wasn’t looking. Anyway, I fell to my knees, my palms on the ground, my forehead touching the grass, and wept like a child. My shame, my pain, converted into tears, must’ve seemed a river to the little things below. They were here, in the grass, their bellies glowing yellow… Fireflies. In that starless, moonless night they were like little suns in that small world hidden in plain sight.
I wiped my face with my sleeve and stood up, facing the distant red glow on the horizon: the war was raging there. If I keep running, keep hiding, it would simply come to me. It would roll over this silly village and past it, right to my home…
I woke up in the house, in bed. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t remember how I had gotten there. Had my little night journey been just a dream? I couldn’t tell.
I lowered my bare feet to the floor and paused for a moment. It felt so good! I’d got so used to wearing boots most of the time that the feeling of touching something with my bare feet became a novelty.
Slowly, savouring every step, I walked towards the door and flung it open. The sun blinded me for a second, so bright it was that day. I had to stop on the doorstep to let my eyes adjust. The unexpected delay, however small it was, irked me. I needed to gather my boys, give them a speech, and send them packing. We’d wasted enough time here already. And… there was something disturbingly odd about this place. I couldn’t put my finger on it but I was sure that we had to leave at once.
My eyes adjusted enough for me to open them again, so open them I did. Lo and behold: amidst the crowd of twitching spots the light flash had left me with, a figure danced in the fields. Miroslav. And he had a sword in his hands. A sword!
Taken aback by the sight, I lost track of things for a while, even the gnawing urge of leaving the village stepped aside, giving way to curiosity.
A sword. A real sword, just like the ones I saw in the museum! Only there, it didn’t look out of place and Miroslav handled it with such ease. He was definitely not a stranger to the ancient weapon.
I approached the young man, carefully, but there was no need for precautions: Miroslav noticed me, sheathed the sword and said his good mornings. I returned the greetings and wishes absentmindedly, my thoughts still caught up in the strange dance.
“This is my father’s sword,” Miroslav explained, answering my silent question. “And the dance is an old tradition, a tribute to peace, a celebration of life, and a good exercise, too. It was my turn to dance today. Tomorrow will be my sister’s.”
“Weird…” was all I could say. And then the dam of questions gave way. “Why don’t you fight? Why are you still here when the war is on? Why is your village not on the map? Where are my boys?”
Miroslav stopped me with a pat on the shoulder.
“Whoa, whoa,” he smiled. “Not everything at once.”
I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled through my nose.
“Fine! So, first question: why are you not in the army, you sword-dancing useless boar of a man?” I threw the question in Miroslav’s face like a rock. He didn’t wince.
“We are not playing your world’s games,” was his answer. “We only protect what's our own.”
“Well good luck with that!” I was seething. “The war will come to you sooner or later…”
“It won’t.” Miroslav shook his curly, blond head.
“You stupid big child…” It was my turn to shake my head now. “Hiding won’t help. These people - women, children, elderly - they’ll be dead soon unless you and your fellow men step up and fight for them, don’t you get it? Are you afraid or what?”
“Afraid? No. I’m no soldier, Tihon but I’ve seen my share of fighting.”
“Yes. This village,” he stretched out his hand, embracing it all, “is not on the map, true. We are hidden in plain sight, like the kingdom of insects below the grass canopy, but sometimes, by pure chance, outsiders do find us. Like you did. And they’re not always friendly.”
That gave me a pause. Despite the heat of the day, I felt a cold chill run down my spine.
“Have you ever killed?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered. And that was the end of the conversation.
I needed a time off to wrap my head over what I’d just heard and Miroslav must have felt that. He left me alone.
Lost in thought, I wandered off and kept walking until my bare feet touched water. A winding rivulet was making its way through the fields, bubbling merrily along the way. I sat on its bank, my feet in cool water, my head - in the blazing sun.
Soon, I was skipping stones on the water like a silly child. It felt nice to have something easy and repetitious to do with my hands while my head was spinning as it tried to process the things I’d heard.
“Please, don’t throw stones,” I heard an unfamiliar voice from the right. “You’ll scare all the fish away.”
A turned to the stranger, knowing beforehand what I’d see…
His accent… He sure did a good job at learning our language but his accent was still as thick as it could be. German. The enemy.
He greeted me with a disarming smile. There was neither fear nor malice on his face, nothing but the joy of seeing a new friendly face.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, my voice as low and raspy as a dog’s growl.
“I live here.” The enemy soldier shrugged and put an earthworm on his fishing hook. “My name is Hans.”
I didn’t say anything else all day. Hans did, though. That young fellow was quite a chatterbox. He kept rabbiting about this and that non-stop. I listened, helpless, shattered, destroyed from within. I came to my senses several hours later, when I heard Hans play a Russian folk tune on his mouth organ. I remember the words of the song. It was about family stuff, simple joys, so common and yet so outlandish for a soldier who hadn’t been home for years…
“Hans, do you have kids?” I asked suddenly.
“Kids…” His shoulders drooped. “Ja…”
That was when he stopped smiling. He left the riverbank soon after. Once again, I was alone with my thoughts.
I’m not a bug below, I told myself. I won’t hide. I have a family to get back to. I have a motherland to fight for. I’m going back, miracles be damned!
The next morning, I gathered my boys and left the village. All of them followed. I felt so proud! Idiot…
The war had lasted for three more years after that. Finally, it was over. Finally, it was time to pick up pieces. Finally, it was time to go home.
My injured leg slowed me down a great deal. After getting off the train, I moved forward at a snail’s pace and hated every step of the way. My mind ran ahead of me, conjuring up images of a happy reunion, of tears of joy, of laughter, of everything dear. Every time it seemed to me that I saw a familiar landmark, my heart jumped, then sank again, the feeling dulled by the endless, dragging grasslands and forest undergrowth. The road, unkempt, bumpy, dotted with little puddles, sometimes disappeared in the grass, then reappeared again and dragged, dragged endlessly. I should have seen houses already, I knew. Or grazing animals. Or carts. Anything…
It took me a long time to understand… But even then, I kept going, deep in denial, until I found the charred ruins of what had once been my home. Then, and only then, I could lie to myself no longer.
I fell to my knees, bawling like a child, face down into the tall grass. The hidden world opened to me once again. A war was going on there. I saw red ants attack black ants’ home, tearing through their defences, dragging larvae - their children - into slavery, advancing, and probably winning.
But at least they were here, those black little things, they were home, protecting their family at their very doorstep. And where had I been when my family got killed, when my home got burned? Away. Far, far away, chasing the fire on the horizon, eager to join the battle there.
There was no way to do this right. I knew! And still…
I watched the red ants retreat with their trophies. I watched the black ants pick up pieces the best they could. I had nowhere to hurry. Nowhere to go. I had no one to look for me here in the grass. I was a bug below, hidden in plain sight.
The world was shifting again. I felt it, just like back then, by the unmapped village. Something was opening in reality - a wound, a maw, a death trap? - to swallow me whole but I couldn't care less now.
I raised my head. Sunlight blinded me. And the world I knew was no more.
(March 27, 2003 - ending changed on Jan 3, 2022)
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English is not my native language.
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