war child

Posted on July 18, 2009


When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things.

Gospel, Mk 6:30-34

ONCE upon a time, fairy tales just happened and if you had walked up to an ordinary man or woman of average taste and education inquiring, say, about a character like Cinderella or little Red Riding Hood, people would have told you about them in the unexcited manner in which they talk of what they know for sure even if they don’t – but they can feel the truth of the matter, and they add the necessary detail for a good steaming story, because that’s what we’re all about: making up stories we can believe and inhabit at any age, in any place.

You come out of these encounters with regular folks knowing that Snow White lived just around the corner, and that the Strong Wanja came through town after he defeated the Baba Jaga and before he met with the terrible dragon whom he slayed after a hearty breakfast in the local pub.

One of the lesser known stories, and who knows who told it first, is the story of the War Child, Noëlle. She was a little girl still and she held the entire world in her small hands and she did not even wear a fancy dress nor did she talk much and she did not even know how important she would become for everyone around her. Had she known it, her magic might have evaporated like a splash of water on a hot hot summer day.

When Noëlle was playing as a toddler, her parents, Nebuk and Caliph, saw that she kept to herself and they worried. She was their only child, conceived after much battle with doctors who viewed Nebuk’s cervix with scientific suspicion and took Caliph’s sperm probe (in a small cylinder which made him feel small and impotent though there was no problem on that frontier and he and Nebuk often rolled in the hay, out of love) muttering foreign words with many syllables, which did not sound kind or encouraging. These doctors, it was clear, were not paid nor trained for human compassion but for some service involving manuals and knowledge bases that made your mouth dry with desire for fruit.

Noëlle was quiet allright and kept to herself, but when she was at the playground, all the children tried to play near her. And when their mothers asked them why since Noëlle did not really show any interest in them, only smiled kindly and would not even throw a ball back at them that had dropped in her reach, these children shook their heads. But if said mothers took them away freaked out by the quiet child in the center of their own brood, the children moaned and resisted until the mothers gave up and returned to their grown-up conversations and ground-down concerns.

In school, Noëlle was good in those subjects which required a steady hand and a calm mind, and not so good when a lot of talking and diverse doing was asked from her. She loved history above all though she would not say what she learnt from reading the dusty books in her father’s library. Her favourite was the Commentarii de Bello Gallico by Julius Caesar.

Now she was eight years old and had been allowed to stay up past her usual bed time. Her parents had turned in already, trusting her to get herself to sleep safely. At midnight, Noëlle, who had been restless all day against her habit and inclination, stepped out on the terrace of their city flat and looked up. She found that she wanted to open her hands like a priestess as if to receive a large gift, closed her eyes and felt a pain, not too bad though, and somehow natural and known, grip her heart which was uncommonly large and wide unspoilt.

When she looked at her hands again, they held a pair of old leather sandals, which felt warm to her touch, heavy and light at the same time. She knew that these shoes were the wars of all times: wars remembered and wars forgotten, terrible wars where millions died, and small wars between lunch and dinner. accidental wars with their chance battles which nobody really began and which were ended by exhaustion of all involved, premeditated wars planned by loiterous leaders and carried out by those who sat below the salt. wars that harmed many who did not even know of their reason. heroic wars waged by huge men, combatting to the death. wars that transcended the grave in a grim way. attention-grabbing wars which found their way into the thickest history books. wars fought in trenches filled with helmets wet through from tears. flimsy wars flickering across TV screens as news from a remote reality. flaming wars and wars of the weary. gender wars leading to barren bodies and wounded egos. wars of words, of men and mice, of the sons of light and the daughters of darkness, of high and low, more against less, the wicked against the weak. so many wars, never they stop, thought the girl and at this moment her burden seemed almost too large to carry and she was tempted to throw the battle clogs on the street so that everything might return to normal.

But she knew it wouldn’t do. Once the truth is out, you cannot put it back in its cage, her mother had said, it’s a big bird. The water I bring I will never bring again, the river had murmured. There is no repetition of anything in the world, Noëlle thought. It’s now or not again for a thousand years of yearning, she thought as the city lay still and she could almost hear her father’s light snoring and sense her mother turn him over for lack of a better way.

Across from their building, Anthony, whose son had served in the war and died in the war, closed his bar “Tabernacle”. He moved about slowly, pulled down the shutters with great care almost as if he was painting the window, not to disturb anybody’s sleep. He was a sweet old man with a weakness for hooch. She whistled and he turned around and waved her hello with his dark hand. What’re y’doing up so late, he whispered but at this hour his voice carried far. Noëlle shook her head – I don’t really know, I need to do something, she replied. Can I do something for you, he said. No, she signalled, and Anthony shuffled off carrying his sadness home in a green bottle.

The girl kneeled, slipped in the leather thongs, turned on her heels twice to the left and twice to the right, and disappeared we don’t know where, to end all wars, forever.

© 2009 finnegan flawnt severely struck by sentimental mood.