Do you ever wonder how it would’ve been if we were paler? If, by looking into this reflecting glass, we could somehow be different?
When the war broke out, Vesna and I were barely in our twenties but it felt as if we had lived in the southwest corner of the old country for decades, centuries. It was not an easy living for any of us: the rivers had dried up and the cost of desalinizing the ocean left us homeless for the sake of potable water.
Everyone in the west was nomadic. The desert had rendered us so. Still it was a far cry from the mountainous terrain where Vesna and I were born–or maybe it was the people who had made our homeland so unthinkably horrible. We may not have wanted for food or water, but there in the desert, we never wanted for safety… until the war broke out.
When it did, it came as a thunderstorm of poisoned water in the pipes and manufactured earthquakes. It was very hard for us to figure out where the fighting was coming from and who was attacking us, but slowly news trickled in that this was a civil war, that other nomads had grown tired of our rendered poverty and began to fight back.
Vesna and I knew nothing of the ethnic relations in this northern land. Nor did we understand how cut and dry the sides seemed to have manifested when we were neither ethnically indigenous to these parts nor invested wholly in the climate of politics. We were not from here.
But we were treated that way, all the same. When the lines were drawn and the sides settled, we found ourselves once again displaced by the people we had lived with for many years. Our nomadic tribe came to us at night, torches lit, faces half covered against the humidity. “You’re not one of us,” our leader told us. “We cannot trust your kind.” His pale forehead was smudged with soot and desert dust and his eyes looked ragged against the firelight.
“Where are we to go then?” Vesna asked, sheet covering her bare chest. We had been sleeping under the peaceful assumption that our lives would continue the tumultuous track it had always ran on–no way we could be caught up in the war. Yet, there we were, being forced out of the only place that had ever felt safe.
“We don’t care!” He responded.
“We’ll leave in the morning,” I interrupted because Vesna could never be trusted to speak when there were hands and feet and teeth and nails to be used in place of words.
“You’ll go now.”
“Now?” I questioned. “ Now, when there is not a star in the sky for all your smoke and when we haven’t a single idea of where to go or how? Now? You owe us the curtesy of at least one more night when we have shown you no ill will and this is how you treat us. Now? We will not go now. We will pack up and leave tomorrow, when we see fit, or we will not leave at all.”
“Very well,” he conceded, and the sound of his voice told me all I would ever need to know about these forty people. That they were caught up, just as we were, in the whirlpool of a war we did not declare. He sounded as if he never wanted to be the one to exile us, as if he had been outvoted. He sounded glad we did not fight as if we had confirmed that all the rumors about people our color had been just that–rumors.
In the morning, Vesna and I had packed only the essentials and walked west. We knew there was not water for at least 100 kilometers in any direction and so we travelled with the extra weight of knowing that this would be how we died. We did not talk for there was nothing for us to talk about. Besides, the heat was sweltering enough that we needed only the trek in front of us to levy all our energy.
By the third day, our canteens had run dry. At midday, I handed Vesna the last scrap of dried cactus root and she took it solemnly.
“Why does this keep happening to us?”
“Because we are too innocent to be unscathed by the harshness of living.”
“Yes, but why us? Why are we innocent? Why is it so hard to live?”
“Because people have long since decided that there is no other way to live. Only to hurt and be hurt. Only to subsist and exploit. People more powerful than we are have forced nature to bend at their own whim and we have been the by product of such terrible forces.”
“How do we stop it? How do we stop them?”
“ I don’t think we can.”
“Than we should just die here.” She’s yelling suddenly. “We should just lie down and die. What’s the point anyway? The world is fighting and we have been plastic in the ocean all our wretched fucking lives. Why should we keep going, keep breathing. What is the fucking point.”
“I don’t know.”
“You know everything.”
“I don’t know this. I only know that I don’t want to die in this deserted landscape and that I need more water and we’ve still got 15 more kilometers until the next well and the sun will blaze for another seven hours and I don’t know what else. But I can’t die here. I can’t let you die here either. We deserve better deaths than this.”
“Where are we going?”
“I’ll know when I get there. So will you.”
We kept walking. The well, when we found it, was dripping the last drops of water we’d see until Vieno stumbled onto us. Vesna would have died there. And if she had died, I would have followed her, head first, into the darkness of the other side. But Vieno found us and recruited us.
And we began to fight back. And eventually we won.
But there were many battles left to overcome before Vesna and I were ever okay.
She said to me, many years later: “Do you think it would have been different if we were paler?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean when you look in the mirror do you see yourself with pale skin and brown hair or do your see yourself with brown skin and black hair?”
“I see myself as I am.”
“ And you never wonder?”
“Wonder what our lives would have been like if we looked different?
“No… Do you really wish you were one of them?”
She pauses to think about it. “No,” she says with a finality only middle age could’ve granted us.
“No, me neither
**this is set in the "many betrayals” universe**