She saw her death in his eyes.
The warrior stood beside the remains of her home. He was tall and young and strong and he looked at her now as she held the bucket of water that she had drawn from the well. She was alone. There was nobody else left in the village.
“Give me water, woman,” said the warrior.
The warrior barely recognised his own voice. It was hoarse. His mouth was dry from the hot desert air, and his throat was sore from screaming. He beckoned her with the hand that did not carry a weapon. She looked into his eyes. She did not move.
The warrior raised the arm that did carry a weapon, a battered and dusty Kalashnikov. He was tired from days of fighting and nights of not sleeping, from killing too much and eating too little. The weapon was heavy, a deadly weight. He pointed it at the woman as if it were a pistol, with one hand, a lazy way to aim an automatic rifle. The sullen metal was too heavy for his tired arm to hold firmly. The barrel of the gun drifted left and right and it was mere chance that she was not in line with it when he pulled the trigger.
The sound of the single shot echoed from the walls of the ruined buildings that surrounded them. The bullet kicked dirt up into the air behind the woman but still she did not move. She just kept looking into his eyes.
Her face was uncovered. It was a pretty face, with a strong, almost masculine structure. Her eyes were a striking light green, the colour of olives, and there was no fear in them. Her hair too was unusual, brown rather than black, with streaks that had been bleached blonde by the sun. Widowed early by a disease that they could not name, and childless as a result, the woman was used to being alone. She was at the end of her third decade, and she had seen all the people in her village killed in a war that had nothing to do with them. She was the last.
“Give me some water,” said the warrior once more. “Give me water or I will kill you.”
The woman stayed where she was. “You will kill me anyway,” she said. Her voice was deep. She sounded as tired as the warrior. “You want more than water. You want blood.”
The warrior smiled, though not in amusement. “Perhaps,” he said. “But I will surely kill you if you do not give me water. I will kill you now.” He raised the rifle and used both hands to point it at her. Still she did not move.
The warrior was becoming angry. He spat into the sand, his eyes on hers all the while. “You know that we rule this land now.”
“No,” she said, looking now at the spittle as it died away on the baking sand. “No, you do not. This has been my land, the land of my people, for as long as we have been a people, but we do not own it, we do not rule it any more than you. The land cannot be ruled, nor the sun or the sea. They are of the world, not of man. Only man can be ruled, only people. The land will still be here long after all the people have gone. Long after you have gone, soldier. And you will be gone soon, I think.”
The warrior made a grunt of anger. He shouldered his gun and stepped towards the woman. She stood still. The warrior snatched the bucket from her hand. Water slopped from it. He placed a foot in the woman’s gut and pushed her away with such force that she fell on her back on the stony ground in front of him. Turning sideways so that he could still see her, he raised the bucket to his lips and drank part of what flowed from it, allowing the rest of the water to waste itself across his face and down his body. When he was finished he threw the bucket down beside the woman and they both watched the last of its contents soak into the sand. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He had a thin beard and droplets of water ran down it as he spoke.
“You were right, woman,” he said, kicking her foot. “I need more than water.”
The woman felt the world become smaller. All the days of her life seemed to gather around her. It was as though she could touch the beginning and the end of her life from where she lay. A memory of the sweetest figs she had ever tasted came to her, figs that her grandmother had given to her on a feast day. She tasted it now, the sweetness of the soft and sticky fruit in her mouth, and then she felt the kiss that her grandmother had afterwards placed on her head, and all the love that had flowed from that kiss, the love of her grandmother, of her mother, of all her family, all her ancestors, all of her people. All those generations, all those words and touches and kisses, all gone now. She was alone. She was ready.
“You can take nothing from me,” said the woman.
The warrior laughed. “But I have already taken your water,” he said.
“The water is not mine to give,” said the woman. “It is a gift of the land.”
The warrior laughed again. “I’m hungry. Did the land give you any gifts of food?”
The woman thought for a moment before she told him the truth. “I have a few olives and some stale bread. A little oil. Nothing more. Everything else has been taken or destroyed.”
“You lie,” said the warrior. She saw anger crease his face again. She knew that anger sometimes made a man exciting to behold but this was not a handsome man. He had a sneer, and anger raised his upper lip and made the sneer even more ugly.
“I do not lie,” said the woman. “I am not like you. I do not need to lie.”
“What lies have I told?” said the warrior.
Again she paused to consider before she replied. “The lies you tell yourself, boy. All of the brave warriors who have passed through this land, your army and the armies that you fight, you all lie. You tell yourselves you are righteous. It is a lie. Worse, you know it is a lie, and still you fight on. You claim the slaughter of innocents, the weak and the unworldly, people who you kill just because they are not like you and do not want to be like you, you proclaim their deaths as victories. It is a lie. You believe that this is a holy endeavour, that you fight a just war, that you will be eternally rewarded in the heaven of your god for all the deaths that you deliver in his name. It is a lie. You know it is a lie.”
The warrior bent down and stamped the butt of his rifle on the woman’s face. It broke her nose and split her upper lip. The warrior straightened up. The woman made no sound. She lay on her back, elbows in the sand, hands clenched in the air. Blood ran from her nose and her lip, and flies quickly found the blood. She watched him in silence.
“This is the truth, woman,” he said. “You are going to die. I am going to kill you.”
“You will do what you will do,” said the woman. She wiped a hand across her philtrum and looked at the blood it found. “Do you have a mother, boy?”
“I am not a boy.”
“But you do have a mother? Would she be proud of you and what you have become?”
The warrior was already thinking of his mother. She was a small, round woman who had been regularly beaten by her husband. The warrior had once tried to protect his mother and save her from such a beating. She had thrown him aside and told him to respect his father, who had then beaten them both. The warrior left home soon afterwards. He joined his army because they would train him and they paid well and because there was nothing else he could do. He said their words and sang their songs and did their bidding but he didn’t believe in it. He didn’t believe in anything.
“She is of no consequence to you,” he said. “She is of no consequence to me. She is just a stupid, fat little woman. She means nothing. Just like you. Just like your country and your people. You mean nothing to us. You are just stepping stones that we tread upon in our march to victory.”
The woman nodded. “Victory?” she said. “What is that?”
The warrior didn’t understand. He looked puzzled.
“How will you know?” said the woman. “How will you know when you have won?”
He shook his head. “When all our enemies are trampled in the dust.”
“And then what?” The woman wiped her face with her shawl, streaking it with her own blood. “What will you do then?”
“We will praise god and thank him for our victory.”
“And then what?”
The angry sneer returned. “I will waste no more time here,” said the warrior. “You should begin to make peace with your god, woman. You will meet him soon.”
“You do not know, do you?” she said. “You cannot see what you have done, can you? Ask yourself this: how will you live? What will you make? What will you eat? You have killed all the farmers and tradesmen. Who will build your houses? Who will grow your food? Where will you grow it? The land will be barren by the time of your ‘victory’.” The woman laughed and placed a forearm over her eyes to shield them from the sun. “You fools. You have been taught how to destroy, and so you have destroyed all that you do not understand, which is everything. All you can make is war, but war is like fire. It consumes whatever it touches. It will consume you, too, you and the bitter old men who rule you, who sit now in the comfort of their holy places while you and all those like you die for them. Not for your god. For them, and their madness, their ideas of how the world should be, how they think other people should think. And you know this. I can see it in your eyes. You know this, and yet still you fight.” She sighed and moved her arm from her face but kept her eyes closed. The sun shone blood red through her eyelids, and she could see eternity. “They have won, the old men. They have stolen the hearts of our young, and thrown away their minds. They already have their victory.”
The warrior could see that the woman was speaking to herself now and he became fearful of her. There was something about this woman. She had no fear. She felt no pain. She knew his most secret thoughts, and spoke them out loud.
“Who are you, woman?” said the warrior. “Are you a witch? A demon?”
She shook her head. “I am one who has seen too much. One who has thought too much. One who has lived too long.”
She levered herself up from the ground into a kneeling position, straightening her shawl and smoothing her dusted skirt around her. The soldier saw that the blood on her face had already caked and blackened in the heat of the sun. She looked into his eyes again.
“I will give you one last chance,” she said.
The soldier laughed loudly at the absurdity. The woman continued as though he were silent.
“Turn away from them. Turn from the old men. Go home. Find a woman. Have children and teach them about life. Teach them how to love. Teach them to be good. You can still do this, even now. There is still time for you.”
The soldier slowly stopped laughing. He shook his head.
“I know now that you are truly mad,” he said. “Just a crazy old woman after all. You will be no loss to the world.”
“So this is what you want, is it?” she said. “To kill and kill and kill? Never to rest? Never to have joy? Never at peace? Never happy? For you are not happy, I can see that.”
“Stupid woman,” said the warrior. “Why would I give this up? I have money. I have a gun. I can have any woman I catch. I could have you, woman, here and now. My life is exciting. Why would I go back to being what I was? A nobody, with nothing.”
The woman put her hands together and looked down.
“Are the others like you?” she said. She did not raise her head.
“The other soldiers. Are they like you? Are they unhappy? Do they also fight for what they do not believe?”
The soldier looked around, as if to check that nobody was listening. “Of course,” he said. “Nobody believes all that holy war crap. None of us. But we have nothing else. This world gives us nothing so all we can do is take from it. There’ll never be anything for me, for people like me, unless we take it from someone else. That’s just how it is. That’s how it will always be from now on. The old ways are gone. They didn’t work, and now they’re gone. I told you before, we rule now.”
The woman was still. After a moment she raised her head. She nodded.
“I am ready,” she said.
“Yes,” she said. “There is nothing more for me in this world. Kill me now.”
She raised her chin, to make it easier for him. The soldier saw what she did and it filled him with terror. This is not a woman, he thought, this is a spirit, a demon, and she has twined her life with mine. He considered leaving her here, just walking away and letting her rot. Nothing could stop him now though, not even himself.
“As you wish, woman.”
He drew a long knife from the scabbard on his thigh and leaned forward and slid the blade’s edge through the skin of her throat. He felt the drag of her flesh as the knife passed through it.
The woman didn’t fall. She stayed where she was, still kneeling in the dust of the land of her fathers. Blood sprang from the slash along the side of her neck, pulsing out and across her shoulder and down the front of her body, soaking instantly into the material of her clothes.
The warrior began to walk away from her, walking backwards at first, watching the woman as if expecting her to rise and come after him. He stumbled and then turned. He began to run. It’s over, he thought. It’s all over. For some reason he remembered his mother.
The woman watched him run as she died. She knew that it wasn’t over.
She called to her god now, her own god, the god that exists within each of us and that has been known by all the different names of god throughout the ages, the god that rules us and serves us, she called to her god and begged for the death of this man, and as she called she realised that this was just a man, just one man of many, a small part of mankind, and so she called again to her god and begged for more. She begged for an end to this man and all men like him; she begged for an end to the hatred of one for another; she begged for an end to the ruination of the earth; she begged for the only thing that could bring about all these dreams; she begged for the end of mankind. And as she faded, she thought she could hear the sound of trumpets, distant at first, then louder, and louder still, loud enough to echo in her chest, to shake the walls of her village, to make the land tremble; and she could see a bloom of light, could see the sun grow and blossom and cast out a great curling tongue of flame that came down through the searing sky and licked the shrieking soldier out of existence, that rolled on through the land, consuming another man, and then another, and another, until she was the last, the very last of all mankind, and the fire came to her and as it took her she smiled and she gave thanks to her god for the sweet peace of eternity.