Elena Speaks of the City, Under Siege (Reprint)

Elena Speaks of the City, Under Siege


Steven Torres

It is a city, under siege, and you are out with your grandmother to buy vegetables and, if available, God please, a bit of meat. Your grandmother, bundled in layers and waddling, leads the way. She can’t go alone because it is a siege and the streets are dangerous. Some of the people are dangerous too. Besides, you like her though her walk is slow – her breasts fed your mother. It means something, even under siege.

The sun is out, but you must shove your hands deep into your pockets if you want to feel warmth, and you jog in place sometimes to stay at your grandmother’s side. You wish she could talk a little less if that would add even only one step per hour to her pace. She stops to look down every intersection, even ones where whole buildings have crumbled to block the way so that nothing ever again will come speeding along, heedless. She tells you, since you are both out in the dangerous world, of all the things to be careful about, including men – though most men near your age have long since fled or died or both – and “beware of onions in stew. They can’t be trusted. They take over the flavor.” This explains much in her cooking.

As you near the market, a friend calls out a greeting. She is from your college days, days of sanity, and offers you a drag on a cigarette because when she knew you, you were a nicotine fiend and would take a drag from any cigarette, Turkish, Russian, Chinese, whatever. Months ago, and a different world. There were cigarettes to be had in any corner store or a thousand kiosks or in the pockets of friends. You cast an eye to your grandmother; she has waddled on, still gesturing. You offer the cigarette back to your friend, and she waves it off. You think nothing of it. Her gesture is humanity, normality. You smile and jog a few steps to catch up staying right behind your grandmother to suck the last life out of the cigarette. To her it would be one more thing to warn you of.

Then it explodes. Not the cigarette, of course, the market. Thirty feet in front of you a fruit stand with more customers than fruit blows up. Melons in the air. You land only two or three feet from where you were, hitting your head on the side of a car. You’ve dented the car, but so have the melons. You can’t hear a thing. People are running or they are falling. Your grandmother, whom you crawl to because you can’t bear to stand, is waddling still, but she’s on her back, arms and legs working slowly; an overturned turtle.

A man, running, steps on your right hand fingers and clips your head with his shin. This puts you on your stomach. You try to shout “Idiot,” but who can tell if you made a sound? Not you. On your belly, you pull yourself to your grandmother. You think you are telling her that you’re there, that you’re all right, that she’s all right; your lips, at least, are moving. She looks at you at precisely the moment your hand finds the warm spot of blood near her neck under the layers. Something metal is in there, and her life of sixty years and more has spurt and now trickles away. You pick her head up. She would not like being on the sidewalk.

Her lips move; you can’t read them. She’s probably making no noise. You couldn’t hear it if she was.

Through your hands and knees, you feel another explosion, further down in the market. Maybe the vegetable man, or the woman who tries to sell clothes as though you couldn’t walk into a thousand abandoned houses and take the clothes of a thousand families. There is more running. Your grandmother, her eyes are open, but the lips have stopped, the arms have stopped, the legs have stopped. Another explosion and you are dragged away. You let yourself be dragged.

Later, when someone has asked to see your hand and without a word pulled your pinky straight, when someone else has washed out the cut at the back of your head with water and put in three stitches as you sit on an overturned garbage can, you notice that your hearing has returned and your hands tremble without resting.

“That’s some bump,” the stitcher tells you. He’s not a doctor or a medic. He’s the butcher’s son from when there was a butcher’s shop. Good enough. “It’s the size of an egg now. Tomorrow…” He shakes out his hand in front of himself and you know tomorrow is going to be bad.

“I heard the doctor say that those who feel dizzy tomorrow, should go to the clinic,” he says.

“I feel dizzy now,” you reply.

“Now is not tomorrow,” he says and shrugs.

Someone asks you to step to an ambulance where your grandmother and two others are laid out. You have to identify her. Her purse is gone. Not to be found. They say where she will be taken and where buried and when. Then they close the door on her and drive off, using the siren though there is not a single car in the road to obstruct the path.

Your friend with the cigarettes finds you. She has stitches too, on the underside of her chin. Nine of them, roughly placed.

“Who was that?” she asks; another cigarette is out, burning. She offers you a fresh one and a lit match. The smoke is medicinal; your hands calm.

You pause on the stairs up to the apartment. What will you tell your grandfather? How do you tell him that a shell lobbed from some hillside battery you can’t even see has erased his past forty years? He’s older than grandmother, in his seventies. Do you tell him, “start again”?

“And Julia?” he asks as you enter. He cries, his right hand shakes as it has for some years, but now it has a reason.

There’s nothing to tell him. You move to hold him, but he slips from your hug, and sits on the floor, moaning like a kicked man. Later, a neighbor helps you get him into bed. You know he won’t ever be getting out, and he doesn’t. On the third day, after his soup, you give him another hug, and he slips away from life to death.

An hour of officials and neighbors and then you are alone. And hungry. The soup was the last of the food.

At market, next day, your friend is there. She gives another cigarette. Almost as good as meat.

“Can you get guns?” you ask.

She thinks of being evasive, but sucks on the cigarette instead.

“For what?”

“How much?” you answer.

“I know people. One man. For you…You’re a pretty girl. Not too much. If he’s happy.”

You want to say that you’re no prostitute, but she’s a friend.

“I have gold,” you whisper.

“Ah,” she says. “Then,” she points to a doorway across the street, “meet me there tonight. I’ll introduce you. Something simple?”

Yes, simple.

“With bullets,” you toss over your shoulder as you continue to the market.

That night, beef. A stew with carrots and potatoes. Red wine. You share with the neighbor who helped dress your grandfather before he was taken away.

Two necklaces, quite fine. One bracelet. One brooch. One locket, pictures removed. Two wedding bands. The rings go into separate pockets. The rest go into a small pouch and hidden.

Your friend opens the door to the meeting place at the appointed time. It is the vestibule of an apartment building. The top floors have been smashed. There is a man there, square shouldered, round bellied, unshaven and aromatic even at five paces.

“You have gold?” he says when you say nothing. What were you supposed to say?

You pull out a wedding band. He sneers, not at you, but at your friend.

“Something simple, I was told, but for that, I can give you a rock or maybe a pipe. Very simple, but effective.”

Pull out another ring, and he pulls out a handgun from his waistband, points it at your face. You make fists to cover the rings. He smiles.

“How if I shoot you and take the rings?” he says.

“Then I’ll haunt you from the grave.”

His smile melts, and he hands the gun over. It’s a six shooter, loaded. You take out the bullets, pull the trigger. Smooth action. Two more pulls and you’re satisfied. You pay and walk out; your friend follows.

“Do you like him?” you ask once on the street.

“Like?” she repeats. The word makes so little sense in a city under siege.

You give her a key and an address.

“There is a little more gold there. A pouch under the sink. Go, if you’re tired of him.”

“What are you going to do?” she asks.

You kiss her on the cheek and take the cigarette she has between her fingers. Then you head off.

Leaving the city is not so hard. Smugglers do it. There are paths. If you’re fit, and you are, and if you’re lucky, which remains to be seen, you can avoid dogs and land mines and patrols and overcome the difficulties of the forest hike. You can sneak your way past the dangers. You can find the battery that killed your grandmother and your grandfather from a great distance. You can walk up to those soldiers as they joke or sing or play cards, and with six bullets you can kill them. Then, if you’ve been that lucky, you can keep walking and leave behind you the city with its siege.

The End.

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