In the days of the endless war, she was most scared of losing her legs. She fought for freedom of her country, but also, selfishly?, for her own future, she fought on adrenaline gaslit by fear that nobody would have her without legs – and she had a beautiful pair of sturdy limbs, the type that had been considered most attractive pre-war, when food had been accessible. She couldn’t lose them, for she had dreams: children who would cry and laugh, a cat who would take the hottest spot in her ramshackle house, an abundance of porridge with jam on the table, and the mother of all dreams: a man who would ask for her hand whilst being half-sober. Literally all of it depended on whether she continued to have legs.
Almost every day, she watched men lose parts of their no longer powerful or abled bodies, she saved and nurtured dozens of them, she sang to them, whispered to them and bandaged them, crawled with their heavy flaccid bodies on top of hers to save their broken figures, insufficient lives. Once, when she realized she’d lost her scissors, she chewed on a young soldier’s flesh and bit off the thread of muscle on which his arm hang – “amputating in field conditions”, she later called it. After the incident, she stopped crying, for anyone in battle or back home. Keeping her legs began to feel as scarily naïve as volunteering to go to war in the first place. She wondered if any other generation after hers would be as stupid.
There were two things she mastered in combat: praying and playing cards – both turned out somewhat difficult to get good at but provided a distraction and an almost impossible diversion of focus from the screams and the deaths and the bombs and the fear. If there was time for a game of cards it was generally understood as safe time, a break from the brevity of life. She rarely played with the other girls, preferring the harsh language and the daft competitiveness of men. With them, losing a game could feel almost as unacceptable as losing a war.
As for praying, she kept it to herself, there were reprimands for that sort of thing.
Though pray she did, and it must have helped. Aged 19 and grey-haired, she was one of the few who had the luck to return – legs intact. Here is mum, here are the three little sisters, here is the house she fought for and overwhelming anticipation of tenderness she simultaneously craved but wasn’t quite able to administer. She sits at the table no longer covered with white lace and stares out of the window, focusing on the ticking of the grandfather clock, the sound that puts her at ease because in each tick she hears an explosion. It is going to be a long rest of the life, what with the contradictions of disbelief and hope for the future.
A filthy shabby stack of familiar paper is captured in her rough hands, she automatically fiddles with the well-known texture. Cards, bandages and guns – feels like that’s all she’s ever touched. Would she care if she never played another game? Card games require company, but she quickly makes out in the tick of the clock that company won’t be part of her future. Neither will the ability to act human: she has buried that in the blood, dirt, lice, screams and humiliation, in the loneliness and dried tears, in the short games of cards that she hated to lose.
A timid but insistent knock on the door startles her, which was another thing she would have to build a life with: regular sounds. It’s mum. “Here, baby girl, I’ve packed your belongings, I am afraid there’s very little here, supplies are scarce and must be shared with your sisters. They are growing up fast, you see, already young women… And your presence in this house is bringing too much shame upon them. Everyone knows you’ve spent these years together with men, playing cards and god knows what else… Unchaperoned… If you stay who would marry them? Please go.”
Lucky then, that the war has spared her her legs.