About fifteen years ago I saw a news report on the famine that hit Eritrea in north east Africa. That night I had a very vivid dream that I just had to commit to a very short story. For the sake of getting something online this week, I thought I'd share it. It's kinda raw, and I'll probably regret putting it up, but here goes anyway.
She was the most beautiful woman in the world, although she didn’t know it.
I first saw her when I was working in the Horn of the Continent. She lived in a small village, with her new family (a baby son and a husband) trying with some success to live and be happy. Her husband was a herdsman, as most husbands were, and farmed a little, as most husbands did, and she, God bless her, did her best to be a good wife, by pounding the grain, or baking the bread or looking after the joy of her young life.
She was sixteen years old and early into the second year of her marriage.
Her name was Ichka.
I didn’t see her for some months and I’m sure she didn’t miss me, as she didn’t really know me. I was just another white man working for the local Red Cross. We’d never spoken and it was unlikely we would.
You see, it was not as though I’d fallen in love, or even lust, which would have been forgivable given the rather chaste circumstances of an aide worker in the aptly named Horn of the Continent. More, I simply fell deeply in admiration for the pure grace of her life.
The troubles came quickly.
The cause seems irrelevant now. The leaders of two countries that didn’t really feature in the greater scheme of things began to feel they needed to show some muscle. The superpowers, always ready to capitalise on an opportunity to gain territory or to score points, were quickly into the fray, supporting opposite sides and letting another witless pair of dictators begin to starve their people into oblivion.
There was no drought, it was a wet year and the crops should have been good. There was plenty of fodder and for the first time in some long years there was an opportunity for this lean race of people to grow fat, and so it should have been. But, the war came, forcing them away in their thousands to try to keep themselves and their beloved children alive.
They have a strange way of burial in this part of the world.
The soil is hard, and wood scarce, but they painstakingly fashion a coffin of the finest timber available. This out of respect for the deceased. Its shape is like a barrel cut diagonally across its axis to form a base and a lid. The body is placed in a sitting position, the higher side of the diagonal cut acting as a backrest, to keep the body upright for the necessary viewing by relatives at the funeral. The grave itself is like a large posthole, and about a foot deeper than the coffin is high. A gravestone is positioned after the funeral and a memento of the deceased is often attached. Funny little graves, if graves were ever funny.
I’d been away for a couple of months, trying to organise supply lines around the war. I wasn’t the only one and I know I wasn’t the best. My manner was never the most diplomatic and when it came to dealing with a petty official who was enjoying having some hundreds of thousands of lives hanging on the stroke of his pen, well, my manner was even worse. Thankfully there were others more suited to shaking such people out of their complacency, and due to the efforts of them we were about, we hoped, to receive shipments of rice, or wheat to relieve the famine.
Approaching the camp, my first impression was “where is it?” because all I could see was a few tents flapping in the wind, surrounded by regularly spaced boulders rising out of the dust that covered an area of about 40 acres. A few figures could be seen staggering around but for where there were supposed to be some 10,000 people there were not enough.
Not nearly enough.
And then I realised the boulders were bodies, most still alive, others just dead and awaiting the attentions of relatives to prepare them for burial.
A few of the stronger were making the strange little coffins that they used, only now the coffins were not made of the finest timber. They were made of the only timber, being sticks and twigs, and as these became scarcer the coffins got worse.
The remaining women were, with the aide workers, respectfully cleaning the bodies.
Then I saw her.
One of the two ‘boulders’ close to me moved and I realised it was Ichka, lying next to the body of her baby. She was nearly dead herself and there was nothing I could do to save her as the shock of food, if there was any, would probably have killed her anyway.
What happened next was like a dream.
The little one was gently lifted for cleaning, and so was Ichka. They had begun to wash the near dead as well. As the dust was sponged away you could still see the beauty, and somehow the suffering had made it even greater.
Her happiness was placed in a coffin, and she was placed in the one next to it. She wanted to be.
How it got there I don’t know but suddenly I heard the click-whirr of a polaroid camera and turned to see Ichka with a smile like the opening of heaven, sitting in her funny little coffin, laughing at the bloody stupid futility of her life.
Then she died.
People gasped at the polaroid nailed to the post on her pathetic little grave. They were the people who finally arrived with the food and medicine that would have saved them. They gasped at the polaroid and so they should have.
She was the most beautiful woman in the world, but she never knew it.