I walk two miles every day from my neighborhood to the school, holding my books close to my chest because I do not have a bag to put them in. I wake up when it is still dark so I will not be late; I am lucky to be going to school at all.
The school was closed most of last year, either because there were no teachers to teach, or from being forced to close by the foreign soldiers because of safety concerns. I do not know what kind of safety concerns a grade school could cause soldiers but it is better not to argue with men who have guns.
The days are growing shorter and colder. Morning already holds a chill that pierces through my thin clothes and makes me shiver. Some people from another country brought clothes to our town once. A woman gave me a jacket and said it was donated by school children far away who wanted to help, but I outgrew it; my little sister has the jacket now. It is too big for her but it is easier to wrap a big jacket around a little girl than to wrap a little jacket around a big one.
The dirt of the road at least kept the frost and dew off of my bare feet. I will have to find some bits of cloth before winter to wrap them, but it is not cold enough for that yet. I have walked so much without shoes I think I could walk over coals and not feel them.
Where the dirt road meets the old, broken highway, I pass the long row of jeeps, tanks and trucks, burned and broken and bombed out. Their windows are shattered and their tires missing – stolen to burn. Sometimes I see faces in them out of the corner of my eye as I pass – I see the faces of our young men who fought and died in their military vehicles against the foreign soldiers who came – but when I turn my head there is nothing there.
It was so long ago that the grass has already grown up through the engines and vines curl around the doors and leave gaping dark holes like tombs where the windows had been. Inside, mice burrow into the seats and cats hunt at night.
I walk past them twice every day and each time I can feel the tears that want to burn down my cheeks. Sometimes I want to crawl inside them and die, and sometimes I want to crawl inside them and pray for the ghosts of those who died here to come out and protect us and fight off the soldiers who steal away our people at night.
I still remember when I was a small child watching the parade of soldiers with their shiny boots and bright ribbons and their new trucks as they would drive down the street and throw candy to us. I told my mother they were the best of all men and that I was going to marry a soldier when I grew up.
Sometimes I wonder if the soldiers from other countries ever gave treats to their own children. I wonder if children there were afraid of them, too, or if they treated us so bad because we weren’t theirs.
I wonder if little girls in their country dream of marrying them, and if they know what they’ve done to the little girls here; and if they knew would they still would want to marry them? I wonder if they hate us.
The broken vehicles are behind me now and I try to stop thinking about it. I know I will think about it again when I walk home. I think about school again and the teacher from another country; I wonder why some come to my country with books when so many others have come with guns.
This is only the second week, but school seems better this year. I like the teacher who has come to take the place of the local teachers who are dead or have left. There is only one for our school, so all the grades are taught in a single classroom. It was easy to fit us all in because many of the other children have stopped attending.
My older brother, Micha, had stopped going; at fourteen he was old enough to work, and with our father gone – dead or imprisoned, no one knew – it fell to him to take responsibility to try to get the family by. There was not much work these days, and I learned not to ask what he did to earn money and food.
Our mother does her best, but with the baby it is very hard to find work, or to keep it long. Babies take a lot of time. I had told my mother that I would stay home with little Lila but she would not hear me.
“You are to stay in school, Ruth. You are the only hope our family has for the future. Stay in school and one day you will do better. One day things will be better.”
I did not understand why my mother told me these things. My brother was paying what few bills we could afford, food and a little electricity when there was any to be had. I could work, too, but she would not let me.
There was another woman who had a baby in the town. She had more than we did, and sometimes she would give us eggs in exchange for watching her baby, sometimes for a day, sometimes longer. Mother does not know that I know what the woman does when we watch her baby, but I am not blind. I can see the men who come and go during the day and the night; sometimes local men, sometimes the soldiers. I know what they are doing. Many in the neighborhood call her wicked, but I think she is very brave; I wonder if I could do the same to feed my baby.
Mother had been a business woman at a professional office years ago, before the war. I cannot remember what she did, now, I was too little then. I can remember kissing her goodbye in the morning, and she would be dressed in fine clothes and her hair would be done up and she would have makeup on.
I remember my father telling her how beautiful she was, and how they would kiss before sitting down for dinner. I remember the large dinners they had before and I try not to think about it as I walk to school with my empty stomach and only an egg for lunch.
Now we grow what few vegetables we can in barrels outside to help keep us fed. Sometimes the soldiers dig them up and turn them over, dumping everything out. I watch Mother be so strong, standing silent and cold as ice as they do these things to our food, claiming they were looking for weapons or other illegal things.
When the soldiers leave, that is when she cries and looks so beaten. We gather the plants and scoop up the dirt and replant them, and Mother waters them with her tears as we work. Sometimes the plants keep growing, other times they die and we have to start over with new seeds and empty stomachs.
I remember last year when we did not have any food at all. I would go with my friend, Anna, to the next town and see if anyone had put dog food out. We would take handfuls of that and hide it in our skirts to eat. Sometimes the dog owners would catch us and chase us off, yelling bad things. Once a man caught me and shook me so hard I thought I was going to break. He yelled but I do not even remember hearing the words, only the anger of his voice. When he finally let me go I ran as fast as I could away from there. I never went near his house again.
I have not seen Anna for several months. Her entire family disappeared one night. It makes me angry that no one lets me talk about it, that everyone pretends and life goes on. I hear them talk about it at night, sometimes. The men, they can’t gather too many in one house, so they will go from house to house, telling what has happened in the day. I hear the men who talk to the neighbor father, and I hear them talk about the people who have disappeared, but they will not let me talk about Anna.
I lie to myself, though. I still call it ‘disappeared’. I know they did not, they were taken. The soldiers came and took them. It does no good to ask why; they took them because they could. They took them because they are stronger than we are. I see it every day as I walk to school.
The teacher speaks different from us, but he knows our language. I do not like him much, though. He is mean to the girls, but I keep going; I want to learn and make Mother proud.
As the road turns, I see the school house come into view. The side that fell down when it was bombed had been cleaned away and the new wall finally has a fresh coat of paint on it. There are some children outside playing, and others going in the large double door at the top of the stairs. Mostly they are boys, but I see a few girls, too. I recognize some of them, but none are from my neighborhood.
I go inside. The room is open so I sit down and wait and look up at the flag of my country over the black board. I used to cry when I would see it, now I just feel numb.
A few minutes later, I hear a bell ringing and the rest of the children come in, followed by a new teacher. I do not ask what happened to the last one. This one is very tall and I think she is very beautiful, even though she looks, speaks and acts so different from me. I hope that because she is also a girl that she will teach me the same things that she teaches the boys.
She writes her name on the board, but only a few of us know how to read it. Then she introduces herself as Mrs. Banni. She tells us a little about her country, and says she is here to teach us, but she wants us to learn as we would if we were being taught by our own teachers, so she has us all stand up and we recite after her:
I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America,
And to the republic for which it stands;
One nation, under God, indivisible,
With liberty and justice for all.
And when we sit down again, I cannot help but wonder why we said these words because there is no liberty and no justice in my country as long as the foreign soldiers are here and can do whatever they want. I think God left us long ago.