She halts, looks back, and waves at him again.
He smiles back, the cheerless window framing his face. The train is too crowded to wave back; so he smiles, fingering the little silver cross she gave him that morning. “God loves you,” she sobbed. “I love you.”
“I love you,” he whispered back in the dawn light. The cross gleams idly in the cold neon light. It is a scanty bauble, no more than gilded rust, but at the moment it is worth more to him than all the gold in the world.
The train rumbles, the horn blows. A dismal breeze blows crumpled bits of newspaper from a sleeping beggar’s hand. The clanking begins, loud and discordant, and the iron beast begins to push itself away. She can only watch, fresh tears streaking down her face. The face at the window is also streaked with tears, but he tries to hide them in his shame. He is a soldier now. He cannot weep.
It is cruel.
The train puffs and pushes itself away from the lonely station. Away from his world, away from her. He will remember this moment forever, even in death; the lonely station under the grey dawn; the cold, barren wind playing with the trees; the soft stink of the train, an undercurrent of sweat and tears. And her, beyond it all, beautiful even in her sorrow.
He will remember this as he goes to battle, the cross hidden in a dark pocket with his ammunition. The memory of that bitter parting still echoes in his head as the men die, and the machine-gunners let loose their deafening torrent, as the tanks crawl over grime and corpses, as he clutches his gun with a frantic heart and thinks of her.
Two years later, a clean letter greets the dawn on an equally clean doorstep. She opens the door and picks it up. It is a letter from his commander. She reads it. The words rush at her, clean and uncaring on the stiff white paper.
He was shot down in the trenches, they say, far away from his friends and family. They found him dead by the bloodstained walls of a captured bunker, his blood mingles with that of his enemy. Twelve bullets in his chest. They do not mention the ones in his head, his arms, his legs.
He died alone behind enemy lines, fighting for a dream – of freedom, of glory, of righteousness, a dream dreamt by a thousand people a hundred miles away, safe in the knowledge that men like him stood ready to visit violence and death on all that opposes the Dream. He died in honor, they say unashamedly, he died for the nation. And in his hands he held a bloody, tarnished cross.
Far away, beneath the bloody dawn, the letter falls to the ground, and she weeps.
Note: I wrote this story a long time ago, after a man named Lt. General Parami Kulatunga was assassinated in Pannipitiya, where I lived at the time. He was my uncle. I started out writing a tribute to a man I knew only from the distance of childhood, and halfway down the line I threw down the mantle and turned my pen to writing this story instead. If there is a disconnect in style and language and skill, I apologize – I never really wanted to rewrite the story.
The art is by the incredibly talented Emaad Fayaz, who goes by the name of Dr Carrot on Deviantart. Emaad is a remarkable Sri Lankan artist with extraordinary skill and purpose, part of a graphical collective called PRUVE that specializes in original art in the style of comic books and manga. He’s been working to produce artwork for quite a few of my stories: in the coming months you’ll see more of his work here. Special thanks to Isuru Abeywickrama for making this collaboration possible: without his help, this story and the picture would be rotting on my hard drive unseen.