by Ros Ukoko-Rivers
Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
Martha stared at the barbed wire and smiled. The long twisted tentacles with razor claws spiraled across her path, stretching as far as she could see and beyond. It formed a sharp metal fence without a beginning or an end. She gazed upwards, using her hand to cover her eyes to protect them from the blazing sunlight. The claws grew bigger and sharper as it mushroomed upwards and then disappeared into the sun.
One touch of the fence with her hand baked in mud would rip her skin. There was no bandage to lick her wounds. The torn dress that clung to her thin body, made partly from the skin of cobras that her mother had killed in her snake traps for food, could not save her from bleeding to death. No part of the snakes were wasted. Even their bones were used to make jewelry that her grandmother sold in the market. Martha continued to smile as she wiped the sweat from her face.
This fence was the beanstalk in the bedtime story that her father read to her every night when she was five years old. She thought Jack must have been about twelve years old to climb the beanstalk. Martha turned twelve yesterday. But there were no candles, cards or presents to mark the occasion. Her brother had found the battered storybook in the gutter. Some of the pages were torn and others were missing. Her father wrapped the book in the toilet paper that they were able to purchase, to preserve it. It was the only soft paper in the house. Discarded magazines found in the street and dirty water were then used to clean themselves. The book was written in English. Her father told her that one day she will travel to England and meet the Queen, so she had to learn the language to be able to greet her majesty. Martha clapped her hands. Her smile was so wide her father said it stretched over her face and spread across the floor.
She was not afraid of the fence. But she was afraid of the bombs that woke her every day, like alarm clocks with bullets. One night the bombs fell on her house. Martha could see her father’s twisted body lying on the rocks every time she closed her eyes. Her screams at night were for her mother. Her fingers were all that were visible amongst the rubble. She did not find her brother. Her aunt told her that he was one of the lucky ones. The dogs could not eat his body. It was difficult to understand why God had spared her. Maybe it was to climb the beanstalk and meet the Queen.
The fence with its sharp thorns could not stop her. Martha glanced behind and shivered despite the heat. There was no barbed wire, just an empty dusty red track beaming back at her. But she was afraid to go back. Yesterday, she arrived home from school, and saw three soldiers dragging her aunt by her long black hair into the bedroom. Her last words as the door slammed shut were;
“Run, Martha! Run!”
Martha dropped her school bag and ran as fast as she could until her weary thin legs finally buckled. She collapsed on the ground breathing heavily, convinced that her heart was about to burst.
Martha touched the barbed fence. Its thorns nipped her finger. The blood oozed from her skin. When the bomb fell on her house, blood sipped from her father’s mouth as he lay on the ground. Martha cried for help but no one came. In the school playground, she would lick her wounds when she cut her knees. Her grandmother told her that saliva was God’s way of teaching us how to heal ourselves, so that one day, we would heal the world. This time, she wiped her finger on her dress. Licking her blood would be like licking her father’s blood. She could not heal him.
As the sweat dripped from her nose, Martha opened her mouth and caught a few drops on the tip of her tongue. It was salty, but it was the only liquid she possessed. She gathered several strands of her wet brown hair and sucked them until she could no longer tolerate the taste. Martha sighed. Perhaps if she cried, she could drink her tears. The day that she fell and cut her knee at school, she cried all the way home. Her mother told her to dry her tears because when she cried, the angels in heaven also wept. She did not want to upset the angels. Then they will help her to meet the Queen. Her aunt had told her that Germany was the best place to start their new life, but Martha was not convinced. The Queen lived in England, not in Germany.
Her attention returned to the barbed wire. It had somehow grown since she’d been standing there. Its thorns looked like sharp knives pointing at her, ready to stab her if she dared to touch them. The guns and the bombs scared her, but not the knives. She would tell the Queen that she wanted to live with her. Her father told her that there were many rooms at Buckingham Palace. In England, she would be safe from the soldiers. There would be plenty to eat, and she could go to school and finish her education, and then go to university to study medicine. As a doctor, she could go back home and help her people. She would be there when someone cried for help. Her people will never suffer again. Or perhaps she could be a teacher and teach her people how to live and not to fight. At school, they were taught that life was precious. It was a gift from God.
People were leaving her village because of the war. They did not want to die. Her aunt had told her that they will start their new life as soon as she had enough money to pay the boat people. But her aunt did not tell her about the fence. Martha stared at it. There was no dirt or mud on it. Maybe it was a new fence. It sparkled in the sunlight, like a warrior proud of its armour.
Martha grasped the barbed wire with her hands and winced in pain. She refused to release her grip as she placed her bare feet at the bottom of the fence. Its sharp claws tore her skin like a drill boring holes into her flesh. She bit her lips and continued her climb. Jack did not give up, and neither would she. Finally, she lifted her frail body over the top with all her energy, and then she fell as the warrior stabbed her for the last time.
Her head hit the ground first causing her to tremble. She could taste the blood on her lips. Slowly, she turned her head. Her vision was blurred but she could see that the warrior no longer sparkled in the sunlight. It was stained with her blood. The fence had not stopped her. Her eyelids began to droop. She wanted to shake her head but it was too heavy. This was not the time to sleep. Then she saw her brother running towards her shouting her name. She smiled. At last she had found him. Her mother and father were walking behind him. They were holding hands and smiling at her. Their skin looked radiant against the blazing sun. The bomb did not kill them as she had thought. They had also climbed the fence, and now they can be together again as a family.
More blood spluttered from her mouth. Martha could not tell them how happy she was to see them. She began to shiver. It was strange that she could no longer feel the heat from the sun. There was now a biting wind raging through her bones, like winter time in her village when the snow announced its imminent arrival.
Her eyelids were heavy like the bucket of water that she had to carry from the well every day once the bombs had arrived. Her father was now kneeling beside her. Martha parted her lips once more. All she could do was gargle at him like a new born baby.
“Sssh,”replied her father, “Sleep, my child, and when you wake up, I will take you to meet the Queen.”
His words were like a warm blanket wrapped around her as she exhaled and closed her eyes.
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