Anna strains her eyes, each day she mistakes the bush in the distance for a person, her mind playing tricks on her. She vows to herself to go and cut it down but she knows she will find something else which she can mistake for her father coming back along the dusty path. She picks up the ball the boy had thrown over the fence to her and throws it in the air, letting it bounce once and then catching it. The ball isn’t as interesting as she thought it would be, not when you have no one else to play with. She puts it on the floor and sits on it, carrying on her patient watch for the figure of a man to appear at the end of the road.
Her father is a good man, doing what was best for her. He lived his life to provide for Anna and his parents. He had left last year, just before the summer, in search of work, food and money. It had been almost a year since she had seen him, not one evening had gone by where she hadn’t waited outside their little house. Her grandparents would scold her, telling her she’d catch a cold or someone would come along and take her away.
Last year a little boy had been taken away. She had played with the boy once, he had gotten lost and wandered past their house. They sat together and threw stones at a tree, she tried to talk to him but he wouldn’t answer, content to just have someone to throw stones with. Her grandparents said the boy had something wrong with his head. She didn’t understand what they meant. One day a soldier came looking for the boy, asking if he had been seen. Her grandparents ushered her into the house as they do every time the soldiers pass.
She heard no more of the boy until one day when she went to the village to find something to eat. A man was being paraded through the square, people kicked and shouted at him, the soldiers threw him onto the ground in front of a crowd and shot him. They left his body there for weeks as a warning to others. That evening she heard her grandparents talking in whispers, the man had been hungry they said, that is why he took the boy. She wondered why the man didn’t just pick the weeds and make soup like they did.
When her father comes back they will be able to eat more than the soup. She dreams of him appearing on the road, arms filled with bags of vegetables, maybe even a chicken. She ate chicken once, she’ll never forget the taste. She’ll never forget how full she felt after eating it either. The sky above her begins to darken, she picks up the ball and opens the door to the house. Her grandfather is sitting on a stool reading a newspaper which is given to them each day. Her grandmother is looking out of the window in her own silent watch.
Her grandfather smiles and pats his knee, indicating for her to come and join him. She skips over to him and its down his knee. Each night when she comes inside he teaches her to read. She had gone to school but the teacher had become sick and now there was no one to teach them. She had liked it when she went to school because she could see the other children. She hoped they would find a new teacher soon. She follows her grandfathers finger as he runs underneath each word, saying it out loud. She repeats after him.
‘We do it for our nation!’
‘We do it for our nation!’
‘The struggle will never end!’
‘The struggle will never end!’
‘I went to the fence today to pick some weeds.’
He looks troubled.
‘I told you, you should stay away from there. Those soldiers are not good people.’ He looks towards the window as he speaks, a sudden fear someone will be listening.
‘What’s on the other side?’
Her grandmother becomes alert, she’s not looking at them but she’s listening.
‘Over there is a different world, my love. We were born on this side of the fence, those people over there hate us and want no good for us. You must stay away from there.’
‘A boy gave me a ball.’
‘From the other side.’
‘Where is the ball?’
Her grandfather looks panicked, he stands up quickly and opens the door. He sees the ball lying just outside the door, grabbing it before anyone can see it. If they see the ball they’ll ask questions. ‘Where did the girl get the ball from?’, ‘Who gave her the ball?’. He puts it under his bed, hiding it before he can think of a way to get rid of it.
‘Anna, you can not go to the fence again, if you do you will bring trouble to us.’
‘I won’t. I thought you would be pleased.’
‘There are somethings you are too young to understand yet. One day you will know why.’
She looks at him, his eyes are sad. ‘Our struggle will never end!’, she says softly before climbing onto her bed on the far side of the room. Her grandparents exchange a knowing look, she’s far too clever and being clever brings nothing but trouble in this side of the fence.
Anna closes her eyes and listens to the crickets outside. She wonders if there are crickets on the other side. Does the boy who threw the ball over to her listen to them at night? She wonders what he’s doing now, if he will be able to go to school in the morning. She doesn’t really know why the fence is there, just that it’s always been there and you can’t go to the other side. If you go to the other side the soldiers will shoot you. Sometimes at night you hear loud bangs as someone fails to make it across.
Her father had told her a story once. When his parents, her grandparents were children there was no fence. The people all lived together. Then a war had come, after the war they built a fence and no one could cross it. A man in the village could no longer see his sister who now lived in another country. One day the man could bear it no more and tried to climb over, the soldiers caught him but instead of killing him they took him to the village and made him beg on his knees for forgiveness. He refused so they tied him to a tree. The next day the man was gone, no one knows what happened to him. Some think he escaped.
She falls asleep with the sound of the crickets still chirping. Her grandparents still sit in their seats, her grandmother gazing out the window. She’s given up hope that her son will come home, he’s been gone too long and there’s not even been a letter. She worries for the girl, she’s too curious, she wants know how things work and why they happen. Here in this land, there is no ‘why?’. You don’t question, you only do. Her husband puts down his newspaper and sighs, she knows he doesn’t read it, he just stares at it, remembering times long ago when all was better.
Anna is back hiding in the bushes next to the fence. The boy isn’t there playing on the other side today. She can see houses not far from the fence, people moving about, they look happy. How can a simple thing like a fence make people on one side happy and those on the others unhappy? She picks a flower from the floor and twirls it around with her fingers. A soldier passes by, not far from the bush she is hiding in but he can’t see her. She imagines herself on the other side, taunting him, he couldn’t do anything she was on the other side.
The soldier gone, a fox darts from the bushes and stops at the fence, he pushes his head under the fence and squeezes through to the other side. Clear of the fence he carries on running until he his hidden from view by some trees. The fox can cross but she can’t. Animals don’t have countries, everywhere is their land. An idea comes into her head, if the fox can get under then why can’t she? She’s only small, it would take seconds. She could come back too, it wouldn’t have to be forever.
She’s excited now, pleased with her idea, the naivety of youth preventing her from acknowledging the stupidity and danger of her thoughts. She picks up her bag of weeds, making sure there are no soldiers about she turns and heads for home. Tomorrow she’ll do it, just for half an hour. She has to see what it’s like over there.
This short story was inspired by a post I wrote yesterday The Border.