A Strange Cowardice

Part I

They somehow found Mark and me in the mineshaft. I don’t know how they got through. When we had tried to escape, it had seemed like there was no way out. Perhaps I missed something; some way out somewhere, hidden from my battle weary eyes. It was foolish to expect Mark to assist me in my search for an escape. He had been hit by a bullet, a bullet in the gut; the worst way for a soldier to die. He died slowly and painfully, the transition from life to death stretched over nearly three hours; long painful breaths and the slow flow of blood.

They have rescued me and Mark’s corpse. The corpse is in a deplorable condition, rotting and gnawed away. The rescuers pelt me with questions. I answer like an automaton. It is a pattern; expected questions and suitable answers. The exchange goes on for nearly five minutes. It feels different to be in the sunlight again, away from the mortuary darkness. It doesn’t feel nice, just different. They tell me what time and day it is. They are astonished how I managed to survive for so long without any water or ration. There are drops of blood and pieces of flesh all over me; now that I am back in the light, I can see.them. It doesn’t surprise me.

Then they ask me a peculiar question. And I laugh. I tilt back my head and I laugh.

Part II

Dear Mrs. Simmons,

I was with your son Mark when he died. He died honourably, fighting the enemy. He had no dying requests, no messages, no confessions. He didn’t say anything about you when he died. But I know that he was thinking about you. He deliriously remembered a carousel. He was four years old and being put on the carousel by a woman. That woman must have been you. He wanted to make you proud, Mrs. Simmons, and I am sure that you feel proud of him. He gave me nothing to give to you. The authorities told you that he died from a bullet in his stomach. That is true. Regretfully, he was in a lot of pain and there was nothing I could do to alleviate it. We were trapped, you see- and we had no resources, no food, no water, no medical aid. There was darkness everywhere. The authorities attributed the condition of Mark’s half eaten corpse to the rats in the mineshaft. But Mrs Simmons, there were no rats in the shaft, or else I would have heard them. I do not know who ate Mark’s corpse in there. I do not know how I survived for so long in there, or perhaps I cannot say it. I told the authorities but they didn’t believe me. I don’t know if I actually did what I told them. Maybe I did. But I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed, because I am a coward. Or maybe, under those conditions, I became a coward. I don’t know why I told you this. In fact, I don’t know anything anymore.


Part III

I do not feel or think anything. I do not know what time or day it is, as I do not have a watch. It is dark in the mine shaft and it is impossible to see anything. There is no sound of any life. No rats, nothing. Besides, even if there were any, I would not be able catch them. What I can hear though, is the sound of Mark’s death. Slow and painful. The slow flow of blood and long painful breaths. He makes his symbolic dying conversation with me. It is a conversation in which the dying man has realised something which the living have not. He tries to tell us, but in the end he is not able to, or does not want to. Mark is no exception. He speaks of a carousel back at his home. It is strange how when people are dying, they manage to remember the most trivial things. I listen to his precarious, at times incoherent, monologue and mutter at the right places. However, there is a question I have to ask him. A question which might have revolted and horrified me before I enlisted in the war, but now it doesn’t. I have to be quick to ask, while he is still rational, before he enters that delirious phase. I have seen that happening to many of our mates when they were dying. It is a request, a request symbolic of my cowardice, something that will ensure my survival. I ask him; blankly, numbly and directly. I put the question forward and wait. He doesn’t reply.

Rhishabh Jetley