We are going to war, Dad said the night before he enlisted.
A month later, the soldiers came for my older brother, Ethan. He was going to graduate from high school this year. Mom was so distraught afterwards, the rim of her eyes were a constant red and the dark circles underneath her eyes got deeper everyday, just like mine.
The only thing that stopped us from breaking down completely was the letters. Mom would smile whenever she read Dad’s letter and she seemed to sleep better too. Ethan’s letter was always full of banter, calling me squirt and shorty and asking if I’ve shrunk. My reply was always indignant, saying he was just freakishly tall and that one day I will get my hands on some de-growth serum and make him three feet tall. Always we would talk about what we will do when they come home; we didn’t dare think of the alternative.
Perhaps if we didn’t deny it from the start it might have been easier when the man from the military came.
“We regret to inform you that in their line of duty…” I couldn’t stay to hear the rest; irrationally I thought that if I never heard the words, Ethan and Dad would still live.
Mom…her reaction was…what she did after that was more painful than any physical blow.
She behaved normally, like they never left. She knocked on Ethan’s door every morning, telling him to wake up so she can clean his room. Whenever I was about to shower she would say to leave hot water for Ethan otherwise he’ll complain again.
She would make Dad’s favorite meal on Sunday nights: liver and onions. I kept thinking I would hear Ethan complaining, then Dad would preach on the virtues of liver and onions – primarily that it was delicious – whilst Ethan would retort that it’s like cannibalism, it’s just plain nasty. Then I’d chime in to say eating liver was like eating rubber. Dad would then beg my laughing Mom to side with him against his “cruel children.” Mom would force Ethan and me to eat, even though she hated the dish too.
Our family play went on stage everyday, even with half the cast missing. I hated that she was trying to carry on as if they were still here. It hurt so much because she made it that much more obvious they were gone.
School was no relief. All they talked about was the war, I was swarmed with pitying glances, everyone speaking like they knew what it was like to lose someone. Then my principal patted me on the shoulder, said I should be proud of my brother and father for fighting for what was rightfully ours.
I punched him. I’m pretty sure I broke his nose. I would have been expelled if it wasn’t for my “tragic circumstances.” Didn’t they understand that I didn’t care about some stupid islands? That none of us cared? Mom and I didn’t want those islands or that ‘precious’ oil!
How is this war right when people are dying, when families are being ripped apart? It’s because of this stupid war that Mom is stuck in some sick limbo! It’s because of everyone’s clamoring for oil that my family’s dying! There wasn’t a day that went by when
I didn’t pick a fight with someone, people who spread war propaganda or looked at me weirdly or called me squirt or shorty.
Those were Ethan’s nicknames for me, no one else is allowed to call me that.
It went on like this for months, then one night Mom started talking about how proud she was of Ethan graduating top of his class and getting into his first-choice university. Mom didn’t hush me when I screamed at her, yelled at her that they’re dead, they’re gone, so please, please, stop torturing us both.
She didn’t reprimand me when I used swear words as I ranted about war’s stupidity, and the morons who started it. She didn’t even flinch when I started on God and she went to church every day. She only moved when I broke a vase holding sickeningly cheerful chrysanthemums, white poppies and cyclamens. She gently lifted me out of the mess of wilting flowers and shards and hugged me tight, my tears soaking her blouse, her own drenching mine.
We talked that night until morning. I told her how much it hurt to watch her pretend they were still here, how violent I was at school, how I missed Ethan’s jabs at my height and Dad’s bear hugs.
She told me how she wore one of Dad’s jackets to bed and how she went through Ethan’s baby pictures every day. She also told me, while blushing furiously, that she was not as calm as I thought she was: the military man had left our house with a fat lip and a limp.
For the first time in a long while, I laughed amidst her spluttering that “anger needs an outlet, it isn’t healthy to bottle things up.” Then we both started to cry. It was what Dad used to say.
After that, things got better. Mom didn’t pretend they were alive anymore and I stopped fighting people. We were starting to act like we were before, talking with our friends and occasionally leaving the house. We even started to pack away Ethan’s things and Dad’s and put them in the attic.
Then out of the blue, Mom began to act strangely. She religiously watched the news; she used to avoid the news channel like a plague. She wrote letters but tore them up. She hugged me tightly whenever she could and one time I caught her staring at me like she was going to cry.
Then one day while reading the newspaper, Mom fainted. I half carried, half dragged her to her room and put her on the bed. I opened the drawer of her nightstand, looking for smelling salts. That is when I saw a letter, faded and yellow with age. Curious, I reached for it. At that moment, mom opened her eyes, my hand jerked back but she saw what I was reaching for.
“I found it among your father’s things.”
It didn’t look like Dad’s handwriting, plus it looked way too old. Mom bit her lip, considering me for a few moments, then handed the letter to me.
“I think it is best that you read it.” I did and promptly wished I hadn’t.
Our world is to become one of forgetting. By the time I finish penning this, all will be forgotten. This document will be the only survivor, a fragile mimic of a memory.
It all started with a group of islands rich with oil, no, that’s not quite right, it begun well before then, world wars I and II, the Cold War, and the Manhattan Project, when the nuclear bomb was developed. The islands were just the catalyst. The entire world was embroiled in a tug-of-war. China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan were fighting over the islands.
Japan said the US gave it control over the islands; China claimed they discovered the islands; Taiwan said those are hers by proximity. Countries nearby joined the fray, saying it was within their territories too.
Everything came to a head when China sent an oil rig to the islands. Everyone grew angry at this, and demanded that the oil rig be removed at once. China refused. Then Japan sent their own rig, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines teamed up and sent an oil rig too. Everything kept escalating, peace talks mediated by America failed, old grievances were dug up and then…the first nuclear bomb was thrown.
From then on, the entire world was at war. From six billion, the world’s population decimated to only a couple thousand.
My husband Mikhail died early on. I never got to say goodbye to him nor did Laura, my daughter. My beautiful little girl with Mikhail’s sky blue eyes and auburn hair was all I had left of him. Then I lost her a year after. When the bomb hit us, I was making lunch for Laura and myself. Mac and cheese, not too much macaroni and just enough cheese to make it gooey, the way she likes it. Laura was playing with the dry pasta at the table, making little patterns. The house shook violently, we didn’t have time to duck underneath the doorway…I had to watch my daughter suffocate under a beam while I tried to heave it off her fragile body. I remember her voice pleading, begging me to help her. Every night I relived the memory over and over. Some days I would see my husband’s disappointed face and his turned back.
Then an Erik Alzheimer came up with the plan to “save mankind.” It was our national grudges that made this happen, it was our history that led the way to war and knowledge of nuclear weapons that destroyed us. We must forget everything. He assured us, saying we will remember how to read, write and speak and other necessary knowledge like farming and fishing but nothing else. We will survive and we will flourish. We can start over again.
I do not want to forget the day I gave birth to my only child. I do not want to forget that rainy day when I first kissed Mikhail nor the beautiful summer’s day I married him. I don’t want to forget my baby’s first roll, her first step, her first word, her first smile. I don’t want to forget what our house looked like or how happy we all were sitting on the porch steps, me on Mikhail’s lap and Laura on mine, our little family pile. I don’t want to forget my parents, my primary school, my high school, college. I don’t want to forget who I am, who
I was to the people I loved. Without those memories I am not who I am. No one will be. Erasing our memory is as good as killing us.
And who is to say that this won’t happen again? We will have no memory of this massive mistake we committed. We will continue down the path that we have unknowingly walked before. Our world will again be rocked by the nuclear bombs and perhaps another Alzheimer will stand up and say ‘forget.’
But perhaps Alzheimer is right and we would truly be happy in the future. If that is truly so, then dear reader, ignore this letter, but please don’t destroy it. Pass it on to your children, let them read it and judge for themselves. I can only hope my fears are unfounded and we are all truly happy.
Shaking, I put down the letter. Mom was covering her face. I didn’t want to speak, I wanted to walk away and pretend I never read this but we both knew ignoring it was not the right answer. “What she says…it’s happening now, isn’t it?”
“We’ve been going in a circle. It’s a never-ending cycle,” she murmured, shaking. She took my hand and brought me next to her, hugging me. “Human nature cannot be changed so easily, this is what Alzheimer forgot. Yes, people do not have the memory of what they did and their capabilities but it is inevitable that we will repeat the same patterns.”
I looked at her in the eye, brandishing the letter. “We can stop all this. If we show them the letter…” I stopped when I saw her bitter smile.
“Don’t you understand? It’s already begun,” she said.
I stared at her unbelievingly.
“Today, our military dropped the first nuclear bomb.” She grasped my hand tightly, tears running down her face. “It is already too late.”
Mom was right, it was too late. Before the month was past, everyone had bombed each other, just like in Meirey’s time. And just like in her time, the survivors came up with the plan to erase everyone’s memories. I can do nothing now but follow Meirey’s footsteps and hope that someone in the future can break the circle of forgetting and destruction.
That someone will succeed where we failed. It is too late for us but perhaps it isn’t for you.
This is a work of fiction written to fulfill school requirements. The author is a Tsinoy student at the University of Hong Kong. – Ed.
First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 27, nos. 1-2 (June 17-July 7, 2014): 20.