It's no secret that small towns like Vandana, live short. Their names are hidden between the pages of history as if written by mistake. However, disasters find the cracks to the most unknown places and manage to solder their way inside. Not to be mistaken for the word "soldier". Vandana was too small for wars, and no one wanted it. A global plague had smudged the borders.
It happened when the new government came to power. Despite its tininess, the leaders didn't turn a blind eye to Vandana. As in the rest of the country, soldiers patrolled every street corner. Families with more than one child received a surprise visit. They took the children, except for the eldest. The youngsters that were taken were distributed; One for every childless family. Rare were the parents who rejoiced in the little gift of life that appeared on their doorstep. Rare were the children who were happy to change their life patterns and find themselves under a different roof without their parents and siblings.
Elisheva and Gabriel were a poor and childless couple. The one they had was lost at the age of three when it was taken from them by tuberculosis. Elisheva couldn't carry any more children, her womb refused to hold them, and they were washed into the sewers every time they were almost formed. Gabriel had never lied to his wife except for one time: that he has no desire for children and only wants to grow old with her. But at their young age, that destination was far ahead, and they found themselves with someone else's infant, who was crying to the point of chest pains that made his screams intensify with tremendous effort. They wanted to give the boy the family taken from him, but their feelings were mixed, and they regretted the necessity forced on the little one to get used to their damaged reality. With each passing day, his crying only seemed to increase.
They'd take him on long walks. This was the only thing that calmed the infant. He would sit in the rickety pink pram that belonged to their late daughter and look around at the gas-masked passers-by. There were masks with tiger stripes, others were black with a yellow beak, and some were grey with two metal ivory-like horns. The rebels wore plain white, and gang members sprayed theirs with different colours. No one, except law enforcers and children under the age of twelve, could leave their homes without their identity-mask. The little one didn't understand any of this. He looked at the people who marched to meet the curfew, and at the uniformed men who intrigued his tiny eyes that had seen so little.
Gabriel would ask Elisheva to come with them on their long trips, but she refused for the most part. She hated wearing the raven mask that gave her migraines. She hadn't been in good health since the baby's death and couldn't deal with the unusual abilities that fell upon her since their loss.
Two years ago, Elisheva woke up in the morning to the sounds of Gabriel's heartbeats. It was so fast that she woke him up to ask why he was anxious. Surprised, he explained he had a bad dream. Since that morning, she was able to identify how people less than two meters away from her were feeling. As she walked down the street, she could feel an abundance of sorrow around her. One owed money to the butcher and didn't know how he would be able to pay. One was worried about the weather, anticipating it'll make his vegetables impossible to grow. One feared her husband's beatings and was concerned about her son that was taken while carrying the virus. Gabriel, as the closest person to her, was felt even a kilometre away. But the primary grief she felt from almost everyone, was the grief of losing their young ones. They conspired to put an end to their lives in their heads and hearts, they longed for perpetual silence but were not brave enough to achieve it. Or maybe they were so brave to try and raise one more morning and hold on at least till curfew.
Elisheva wasn't herself. She forgot to support the baby's head in the bath and almost let him drown, and frequently would fall asleep guarding him. Once, he crawled to the lit fireplace and almost burnt himself alive. Since then, Gabriel took on full parental responsibility. As a single parent, Gabriel would also go out with the infant alone. He'd cover his body and face up to the eyes with blankets, to hide him from the world. Fortunately, this only appeared to be a means of protection against the plague. They knew that if they found out what the child could do, he might be taken from them and be executed. The new government didn't like people with questionable, unnatural abilities, and indeed, the infant had powers beyond his control. When less than two meters away from another person, his body and face would change accordingly. His skin colour would darken or lighten, his eyes widen or narrow, and his hair would lengthen or shorten. Gabriel would wrap every corner of his little body, and only his eyes had the freedom to wander. Sometimes, the infant would move about in his pram, letting the blanket fall from his face. Gabriel would notice it and quickly cover him back up. More than once, it happened in front of a policeman, once it was a policeman with a long white beard. On the chin of the infant, white curly hair began to appear and lengthened and lengthened. Only from the surprised look on the policeman's face, did Gabriel realise that the boy had been on display. He rushed to cover him, wished the policeman a good day and kept walking, hoping not to be stopped.
In the days that followed, two officers appeared outside their home, sitting on wicker chairs and looking around; One of them was the same bearded cop. They'd stop Gabriel every time he left the house and ask questions, wanting to take a look at the baby. Each time he explained that the child was feeble and sensitive to smoke coming from the chimneys, and he must keep him protected, or his skin would get covered with blisters. At first, they seemed to believe him, but more and more often, the police tried to insist on seeing the infant. Gabriel was forced to reduce his trips with the boy. Shortly thereafter, the cops began to circle their house.
No one cared to have the neighbour Serena around. She was a gossipy woman, painfully so, and unfortunately for Elisheva and Gabriel, she lived in the house across the street with her window overlooking theirs. As she was an authority sycophant, Elisheva and Gabriel had to leave their curtains drawn at all times. The constant darkness caused Elisheva great sorrow. She'd feel Gabriel trying with all his strength to reassure himself and provide her with encouragement. He didn't tell her what happened on the street with the bearded policeman, but beyond his false confidence, she could feel the fear pecking at him every time he peeked out the window to the policemen sitting outside. She knew something had happened but didn't want Gabriel to know her fears. When she concerned him, she concerned herself as well.
Gabriel would stay awake until the wee hours, rocking the crib of the crying baby. Sometimes, he'd rock the crib for hours after the crying had stopped as if trying to calm himself. As much as he loved the baby who fell into their lap, he hoped with all his heart that Elisheva felt the same. But unlike her, he couldn't read emotions, and unlike the baby, he couldn't pretend so naturally.
Serena spent the nights sitting in front of her window. She was disappointed by the drawn curtains and would wait for a peeking hand or a gust of wind to move them slightly. Occasionally, she'd go out to the policemen sitting outside and offer them cups of tea. They never refused. They sipped the tea from her miniature porcelain cups, repeatedly asking for more. She'd pace herself with the pot as she served them, standing by for an extra moment and hoping to hear a piece of gossip. But they were silent until she disappeared beyond her door. Sometimes she'd pick up thoughts from the back of her mind and roll them into bits of gossip, "Them two are very strange," she once said, "They never leave the house. Before you was around, the man would go out with the little one, now neither do's. The woman don't show her face at all. Something fishy 'bout this couple, I tell ya."
The policemen thought Serena was an amusing woman. Sometimes they'd let her talk and occasionally grin, even asking her questions, "Don't you have a child to take care of?"
"I've a girl," she'd boast, "she used to belong to the Francos, but the raven husband's a drinker and a smoker too and I think the girl be better off with me. My husband with her, I won't leave her alone. I'm not a lazy motha like Mrs Franco, I'm a tiger mask. If was legal, I'd raise ten youngens. But of course, I'm a law-abidin' woman."
When she bored them, they'd clear her and her cups of tea away.
"Somethin's changed today," once she tried to convince them, "The elephant's wife went out to the warehouse afta' curfew, I saw her shadow walkin' behind the house. I dunno what she's doin' there, but must be something suspicious. She a weird lady."
With Elisheva's growing grief, Gabriel decided he needed to find a solution to their situation. Sitting in front of the infant's crib at night, he would always think, looking for answers. He wanted to take Elisheva and escape but didn't know where and how. Those who pass the curfew are shot in the back without question. And they're with a baby who cries so loudly that his lungs ache. Elisheva is mostly bedridden with grief and now too weak to walk long distances, and their old jeep is as noisy as a chain saw.
On the fifth night of his contemplation, Elisheva left the bedroom. "Gabi," she said, "I haven't slept in five nights."
"Did something happen?" He straightened up.
"Yes. My husband sits at home all night, rocking the crib and thinking disturbing thoughts. Typically, he cares about my well-being so much that he's not willing to share with me."
Gabriel stopped moving the crib. The baby has been sleeping an hour of deep sleep. He apologised for preventing her from sleeping and explained what his thoughts were.
"Escape?" She said, "They'll shoot us in the head before we'd cross the street."
"Five nights is enough time to plan," Gabriel said and explained his idea.
Years ago, Gabriel received a gift from a dear friend, a recording device he had never used. He didn't need it, and the device remained in the warehouse, covered in dust. After checking that the device was working and before the infant fell asleep, Gabriel recorded one hour of him crying his lungs out. He also recorded himself calming the baby down and talking to him. Tonight, Elisheva will pack essential belongings. Some warm clothes, one or two toys, and all the money they have. At night, after the infant falls asleep in his crib, Gabriel will rock him as usual. From the back entrance, Elisheva will place all the gear in the jeep. Everything should be ready by two in the morning. Then they'll turn on the recording, put their masks on and leave. With the jeep in neutral, they'll push it up the hill, climb in quickly and let it roll downhill until they're far enough to start and drive fast to the border. The policemen outside their house will hear the infant's cry for at least an hour, and this will buy them enough time to get to the border and think of their next move.
It's been years since they went on vacation. Still, Elisheva remembered that she kept their bags in the warehouse. She rummaged through things until she found a trunk and pulled it out of the cupboard with great effort. It was heavy, and Elisheva opened it. Inside were their baby daughter's toys. Elisheva didn't grieve only for the baby's loss, but for the loss of better and happier years. The first wooden car they bought for her when toy stores still existed, the eyeless doll their dog had choked on before pets were illegal, the music box she used to stare at until falling asleep. She wiped her tears and emptied the trunk. A strange feeling filled her, someone's suspicions behind the warehouse door. She instantly realised it was a police officer; policemen often had a flimsy sense of supremacy slithering inside them. A few seconds after she ducked behind a broken sofa, the door opened. A torchlight wandered around the warehouse, flashed and then went out. The policeman cursed and shook the torch. Finally, he gave up and took a step inside.
"Ma'am, I know you're in there. There's nothing to hide. It's forbidden to leave the houses, not even to your shed. I'll count to three, and you get out, covered with your ID mask and go straight home. If you don't, your husband will have to raise your assigned baby by himself."
As he counted, Elisheva dug deep into the policeman's mind and heart, as if scraping them with her fingernails, tearing every inch of nerve to the depths. The policeman had a shred of doubt, and she decided to stay put.
He said, "I guess we have to go into the house and see if you're there. If you're not, we'll take your husband and let him sit in jail for a while, maybe a year, maybe ten years. God have mercy on both your soals."
Between the slimy parts of his brain, Elisheva could see that he was earnest. She knew that if she exposed herself now, he'd shoot her. But if she stayed hiding, he'd enter her house, see she's not there and arrest Gabriel. Elisheva decided that she'd rather die than see her husband rotting in a prison mask. Nothing was awaiting her, the world as it was now, dismal and grim, was not worth living in. And Gabriel, he has the kid to help him eventually work through the loss. She was almost ready to get out and face her death, but then, from the corner of her eye, she detected Gabriel's shotgun.
"You asked for it, ma'am." said the policeman, closing the door behind him.
While rocking the crib, swinging an already fast asleep baby, Gabriel heard Elisheva walking back towards the house. He hoped she didn't feel the fear gnawing at his insides. The infant looked calm, and Gabriel hoped she'd pick up on his stillness instead. He looked exactly like him, same tanned skin tone, same dark eyes and wild hair. Then, something changed in the child's face. Slowly, his hair thickened and lightened, on his chin appeared a curly white beard, growing longer and longer. Gabriel jumped from the sofa. He picked up the crib with one hand and the recording device with the other, and ran to the bedroom, placing the crib on the bed and turning on the device. He then returned to the lounge, wrapped a blanket around his body and head and lay down on the sofa.
When the door opened, the policeman could hear the recording from the bedroom, as well as Gabriel's voice. On the sofa, someone seemed to be sleeping. Gabriel tried to breathe monotonously and calm himself, listening to the officer as he hung around, walking back and forth and then leaving.
The great fear that still gnawed at him could be felt outside by his wife. She sensed him from a distance, thinking he's being arrested. She approached the house with the rifle drawn.
She could only feel his relief after loading the rifle and aiming its barrel at the policeman who was closing the door behind him. Realising it was too late to back down, she fired two shots in his head. The other policeman ran towards the entrance. He pulled out his piece and looked around suspiciously. She knew he was terrified and approached him slowly. Although he couldn't read emotions, he heard her footsteps. He turned around and with one blow, shot her in the heart. She managed to shoot too and hit his shoulder before everything went black, and all that was left was her utter pain. Her own pain. It was the first time in three years in a world of sorrow that Elisheva felt true relief. No longer did she sense others' grief, stress or fear of illness and authority, only her own pain. And so, she allowed herself to fall to the ground and surrender to the raw wound that was hers alone.
Lying on the ground, she caught a glimpse of her husband. His elephant-mask on his head, and he's running out of the house with the baby's crib. The policeman was busy with his injury, and then, with a pistol drawn, slowly approached her to confirm his kill.
She wasn't dead yet, she looked at Gabriel through the cracks between her tired eyelids. How he put the crib in the passenger seat, started up the jeep and pushed it up the hill. One last time, he turned around and stared at her for a long moment, lament in his eyes, mingled with ease, before he lowered the mask onto his face, got into the jeep and disappeared down the hill into the night. Gabriel is free, she thought; I'm free. The freedom she lacked all this time was her death, and she was happy for it. She was also glad she didn't try to kill the baby a third time, as he'd be her Gabriel's comfort from now on. And it's good, because just as nature heals with time, so is time itself destined to kill. And any death is better than this.