IN THE ABSENCE OF WAR
By Rashidah Ismaili
In the absence of war, peace
does not come to calm in dead silence.
Ears ring long after guns are put away.
A heart still beats in a chest
a staccato; rat-a-tat-tat echoing
in chambers long spent, rent
with screams when guns are put away.
Silence menaces the sought after peace.
In the absence of war stilled guns,
craters yawning, rages of red fire
sear surfaces and singe trees.
Smoke signals a knoll burning,
burning in the distance.
A silence follows in the absence of war
allowing wind to sing a sad song
in emptied homes of the dislocated.
Darkened green leaves
splotched limbs of trees
left standing, quieted witnesses
of somber scenes. Broken branches
stripped bark, a scorching sun
and none offers water to cool tree trunks.
Earth, a pulverized pelvis of torn roots
de-fleshed layers of top soil, caked
into blocks of terra-cotta tunnels leading
down, down, down into an infinite womb,
un-birthed seedlings struggle,
gasping for breath with embryonic lungs.
In the absence of war this earth,
these trees, are left in the midst
of smoke and debris. The swirls
of foam floating in rivers where
bloated bodies, goats, cows, chickens,
horses, camels, cats, a wooden chair,
a table with a missing spoke.
And, a leg, an arm
human and un-named,
all glide silently by.
In the isolation of solitude,
words placed on floral mats
spaced with air and strange marks
translate a sound into a single utterance;
Coloured cloths festoon a square of female forms
sitting straight backs, legs stretched out
come to see what this new ‘Thing’
that has been ‘signed’ looks like.
Single words on solitary missions
carry messages from bloodied streets
to up-country bush. Along the way,
a notion spreads a smile. And in clogged rivers,
women search for the clear waters of their past.
But that too is a lone word and none knows how
to keep company with loneliness.
But in the solitude of silence
that settles disputes and isolates
tears fall from hungry eyes
and there are few to share these sad moments.
The signed paper crackles inside a new
python skin case clutched by a returned school boy
trying to find the missing arm left inside
his grandmother’s house. He sits in an empty courtyard
watching a snake eat a rat. These are the occupants
who come when guns are put away and machetes
are left to rust alongside a partially burnt broom.
Down the road, a daughter drags a limp leg,
bearing traces of chain cuts. Her arms free of weapons
dangles now that guns have been put away.
She seeks the embrace of a missing mother
lost in the rubble that once was her home.
In the isolation of solitude
each grain of sand disrupted,
displaced by fatigued boots shout
an unwanted presence on the land.
Now that guns are silenced
the metallic presence, a shouldered bag of death
hang on sagging muscles abdicating
a prominent position of possibility
from which memory transformed by;
a casual shot,
a random hit,
a faulty link,
a misinformed message.
Eyes pop, faces twitch, henna-hued designs
spurt on djellabas and abyas on geles and lappas,
on boubahs, on earth. These are images
of nightly cinema showing in private theatres
localized in cerebral houses, destruction and present horrors.
In the isolation of silence breath is rhythmic
and drums without fear in post midnight,
blast of heavy metal crash and splinter
in optical display in crowded courage
yells and screams, a rage unfocused.
Out of the cacophony words fly above the din:
“Die Hajji, die.”
Before one “Allahu Akbar.” Or “Bismillah”
a wooden bat, a leathered boot, the open gate
of clawed teeth, a caterpillar scooping,
clawing flesh crush old silver beads
and futuristic gold bangles on wrists
too young too small to offer resistance
now that night sleeps without ricochet of bullets.
Unused beds sag in the lonely absence
of those whose sleep is troubled
and the fumigation of war eradicates
all forms of life seeking to inhabit
a space where a piece of paper
declares there is now “Peace.”
To whom is given this piece of peace,
this bit of respite, this empty calm?
In quietude of night long after birds sleep,
the fear of no noise rasps in a heaving chest.
Heart beats; “Thump!” “Thump!”
In the void of sounds a human hand
caresses an imagined shoulder,
a curved spine. Yes, it is a memorized body
belonging to times before the guns came.
One must not think back to then
live only in the now. Count blessings;
one for each day,
for each breath,
for all the ordinary things of life,
Be grateful for the silence of peace.
Now that guns are put away
children come out to play.
Their voices ring out loud
and gather in a crowd.
They make mock formations,
line shoulder to shoulder, ramrod
straight head, necks. Sticks, branches,
limbs, discarded spokes of broken chairs.
anything that comes to hand becomes a tool, a make-believe gun.
In the isolation of solitude a village is left alone.
Childish play imitates adults long gone.
The boldest ones sing in infantile repetition of old;
“Men, straighten your lines. Heads up! Present arms!”
Their scraggly wrists,
their dried snot spots their ashy arms,
“I am a soldier, yes I am! Look out ladies, look out!
I will catch you all yes I can. Look out ladies look out.
If you are in your fields, Look out ladies, look out.
If you are in your houses, Look out ladies, look out.
In your kitchen or bed, Look out ladies look out.
With a baby at your breast, Look out ladies look out.
Whether naked or in dress, Look out ladies, look out.
I will get you, I will. Look out ladies, look out.
I am a soldier, yes, yes. Look out ladies, look out.”
Each word echoes in empty chambers
spent bullets of youths their mouths
fill with bravado shrills,
braggadocios threats punctuated by feet
flat and hard pound the unyielding surface
of blood and bits of bones grounded into the earth.
Their innocent games march to and fro,
pass their mothers, sister, aunts, cousins,
grandmothers, friends—all the females
who stop and stare. They understand what they see.
They acknowledge what these children, all males,
have seen and heard. They know the lessons
life has taught, boys at play. It’s all such fun.
Now that guns are put away,
rolled into warehouses and onto ships
sailing back across the seas—away.
Away from them but where to, they cannot say.
It is all they can do now to crawl with one good leg,
to stir pots with broken hands,
to sing with missing teeth,
to pray with desecrated bodies,
they cannot do more.
Do not ask an obscene thought.
Remove questions from your lips.
Wipe away looks of pity.
Save sorrow for yourself.
It is these living males, these men-children
one must attend lest they be lost amongst
wild trees and weeds filling former gardens.
A meal waits to be prepared.
Mouths salivate. Dull eyes stare.
These male-children must be fed.
Women and girls can wait.
In the absence of war, silence
descends upon a still room,
a blank chair, an empty bed, dust-covered mirror,
a closed armoire. An unbeaten carpet
absorbs sound and in the wake of war,
memories run amok, refuse to die.
In the absence of war, peace does not come