Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring\Summer 2006 Results




Bread

Copyright © Nikos Andreopoulos 2006


The sun was setting behind the stony spur in the west, when the small company of men first spotted the hamlet in the valley below. The stone houses were as empty as the barren fields from the distance. The company stumbled wearily towards the hamlet in the growing dark. An uneasy peace laying hold of the land.

There were no dogs to greet them.

Twilight. The stars that shone bright in the pale sky seemed closer to earth than at any other time. It was as if Tomas walked in the landscape of his dreams. He momentarily paused between weary steps to consider the evening star. Venus twinkled in the west above the gapping wound draining over the horizon.

What do I wish for now?

Love?

Peace?

The annihilation of borders and weapons?

The rifle in Tomas’ hands seemed to grow heavy. He’d lost count of the weeks that had passed since he adopted the elegant American prosthesis.

How naturally I carry this weight, he thought to himself.

Mars is also somewhere up there, invisible but present nevertheless.

Peace?

Are they not the ones who have treated us unjustly?

Have they not beaten us and ridiculed our faith?

Would I rather choose violence and aggression against my enemy?

Which of the stars moves me?

The old man kneeling in his open courtyard bordered by ancient vines was immersed in prayer. The sudden appearance of the six soldiers startled him.

“Old fool, Mecca is behind you!”

The others laughed, except Tomas who was looking into his enemy’s calm and peaceful eyes. Old muscles hardened and gnarled through years of toil in the rocky fields, struggled to raise the old bones, erect. Once standing the old man took a good look at his tired visitors: old ill-fitting uniforms, drawn unshaven faces, old boots, menacing rifles and proud dangerous eyes. For a moment he compared them to his own sons’ who had gone off into the mountains to fight for the rocky land of valleys and hills that he had struggled with all his life. The eyes of these strangers were hostile. Not the eyes of a son.

“You look tired and hungry my friends. Come with me and we’ll see what we can do to remedy this. My wife has baked bread today.”

The old man smiled at the soldiers, gently rubbing his hands in supplication.

“What did he say?” one of the men asked Tomas.

“I…I’m not too sure…but I think,” he said, taking in the old man’s surroundings. “I think he is pleading for some bread.”

The one who asked the question responded by spitting at the ground in front of the old man’s feet. The others shifted their weight uneasily.

“You want bread is that it, old man? You have taken my land, the land of my ancestors!” The voice strained under the rising tide of anger.

“Now you want from me what you have already taken!” Eyes smoldered.

The old man smiled dumbly and nodded his head. This infuriated the other even more and with a quick jab using the butt of his rifle he brought the old man down. The old man fell to the ground. He struggled on trembling arms to his knees, coughing and gasping. The old man looked up at his attacker, surprised and speechless.

“Vladko! Please that’s enough. He’s only an old man… All he asked for was a little bread. Let him be. I can’t communicate with him… Look, let us search his place, though I doubt we’ll find anything of any use or value.”

“Shut up Tomas!”

“Vladko. He is useless to us.”

Tomas put down his rifle and opened his pack. He found what he was looking for and brought it out. A stale loaf of bread. He broke it in half and offered the old man a piece. Still out of breath and in pain the old man managed to brush Tomas’ offering away and with his head motioned towards the door of his stone house.

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he whispered.

“The proud bastard! Now he is too good for our bread. We have insulted the Great Caliph!” growled Vladko.

The others roared in laughter, except Tomas. The laughter suddenly ceased. An eternity seemed to pass before Tomas was aware that someone was talking to him.

“Put the dead away in pools.”

His ears were ringing and he wasn’t sure what he heard was said.

“What?”

“Put your bread away you fool,” one of the men repeated.

Vladko was already walking away, his rifle slung over his shoulder. Little grey smoke-rings rising out of the barrel with every step. The old man crumpled into a ball at Tomas’ feet. Old bones lay motionless. Tomas stared into calm, peaceful eyes: lifeless.

A wish fulfilled.