Gijs Van Vaerenbergh
The wall surrounded us. It was concrete, eight meters tall. It was scribbled with graffiti and strewn with bullet holes. Giant watchtowers marked the landscape. Grey and frigid eyesores on the horizon. Sentinels were stationed looking down over us, the children playing in the landfill and the unfortunate standing by a bonfire.
It was neither the cold, nor the grey clouds that made our lives miserable. It wasn’t the rain or the wind. It was the protruding grime, the stench of carrion, the isolation, untreated illnesses and illiteracy. All we had was concrete and asphalt. Darkness and deprivation.
The days were marred from the wounds that lingered within. At night, the curfew quelled us indoors, walled inside of walls, smothered by the rigors of life and haunted by the street dogs howling. A terrifying sound, which echoed deep down into our bedrooms and into our dreams.
Julie was a thirteen year old girl, of medium height, with slim arms and legs. Her blond hair was short, it reached to her neck. Her eyes were blue, and her oblong face was naturally bright. She was born there, in oblivion, hedged in by the boundaries of the wall.
One late December night, Julie was sitting, poring over her textbook, under the candle light, and taking notes. She was dressed in gray track pants and a blue hoodie. The light flickered in the dim room and shaded over the notebook.
She overheard a thud in the bedroom. And then nothing more.
Julie picked up the candle, tiptoed on the carpet, stopped, and lifted her candle. Her two younger sisters were there, in bed, sleeping, in black and white striped pajamas. One step forward, and the light wavered, it beamed over to the edge of the bed. She noticed the ruffled quilt, the wrinkled sheet and the pillow. The empty space. She shuddered. Wax dropped on the mattress.
Julie tapped the closet door, then listened. She tapped once more. The candle light flickered. She tapped, then opened the door. There was a hole in the cement floor, and next to it, a bucket filled with water. This was their bathroom and no one was there.
Barefooted, Julie dashed out of the apartment. She ascended the stairwell, holding her breath, with the candle in her left hand, gripped the hand rail, averted the cockroaches, and three floors up, walked on a dusty ceramic floor, then reached the lobby.
She passed through the drafty lobby, crossed the front entrance, crossed the glassless door pane, skirted the broken glass on the floor, then halted in front of her building.
“Hey, Gran’ma, why you’re out?” Julie asked.
The young girl held a hand to her chest. Her head swiveled left and right. She glanced behind her, fixated the alleyways. Sighed.
Her grandmother was sitting on an old wooden chair, in the middle of the road, with eyes gazing up, at the horned moon and the skyline. It seemed like an ageless gaze, a face at a standstill, wise, distant and contemplating the starless shroud above.
The elderly woman had wrinkles on her neck and face, and thick square glasses in front of her eyes. Her grey hair was tied under a blue kerchief. She was seventy five years old, with frail knees, wearing a white nightgown with blue lily motifs, sandals on her feet.
“Go back to bed,” Grandma replied, staring up.
“But, but, you know, there’s a curfew now,” Julie said. “Why you’re out?”
Julie spun, surveyed around her. She glanced at the adjacent watchtower above them, behind a six-story building. She glanced once more, with a pallid face, at the dreaded observation deck, somewhat relieved that the building in the middle blocked the view.
“Go back to sleep,” Grandma said as she faced the sky.
Julie turned around. All the panels on the facade of her own building were bereft of windows. Sheets of various colors coated them. She stood there, glanced at the watchtower, and at her building, with woeful eyes, like a mother’s eyes. She crossed the glassless door pane, rolled down the stairwell, and went to bed.
At dawn, the girls sneaked out of their apartment, glanced left, then right. They moved eastward, along the garbage dump, then glanced behind them. They hopped over a fence, skipped a homeless shed, then stopped. They peered over a young man lying still on the cobblestones, with two gun shots in his chest. A watchtower stood a hundred meters away. They all stared at the body without raising a brow, nor budging a lip, with neither a word uttered, nor a cheek crimpled. All were rendered numb by the daily violence that they witnessed.
The girls hurried, and entered a nondescript building. They slinked down the stairs, then set foot in their classrooms.
In the evening, they strode back westward, along the derelict schools, the burnt clinics, and empty shops. Once home, the two younger girls did their homework, while Julie sponged the mold from the walls. Grandma stitched the carpet, then the children’s clothes. A loaf of bread was all they had for dinner. They all slouched on the bed at the same time.
In the depth of the night, Julie woke up. Grandma was not there. Julie’s cheeks and lips sagged. She slipped out of the bed, ran up the stairs, then found grandma outside, in the middle of the street, sitting, with eyes up. A gaze extending faraway, beyond the branches of the fig tree above her.
“Gran’ma … there’s a curfew. What’s wrong? Why you’re looking up? They shot a guy last night. It’s not safe,” Julie said, in a raspy voice.
Julie frowned, her right hand lay against her hip, her eyes fixed grandma’s glasses and nose. Julie asked,
“What’s wrong Gran’ma?” Julie’s eyes perused the elderly’s lips, then shifted at the infant moon above.
“You won’t understand, my dear,” Grandma said. “I will sit here tonight, tomorrow, and every following night. Go back home.”
Julie gulped, followed grandma’s look upwards, then turned her gaze at the watchtower. She stomped back, with wistful eyes, looking down.
The next morning, the children rambled on a different road, passed next to the gushing sewage and the water well, bypassed the smugglers’ market, dodged the dangling electric cables, and made it to school. In the evening, they returned to their shelter.
In the night, a few hours before sunrise, Julie joined grandma outside, and caught her watching the moon’s crescendo.
Drooling mongrels loitered close by. Julie eyed them. One rabid dog stood up. It brushed against grandma’s legs, then circled the two women. The girl froze. Her eyes followed the prowling beast, followed every single gait. She gulped and gasped for breathe.
A week later, it was Christmas Eve. Troops stormed in with tear gas, water cannon and batons, shooting live rounds and rubber bullets, scouring into people’s homes, detaining those in their lists, kicking and stomping anyone caught in the maelstrom.
But the troops, fearing the rabid dogs, shunned Julie’s street.
Late at night, Julie accosted her grandmother, then nudged at her.
“It’s me.” Julie said. “Did you hear the guns? It’s not safe. Let’s go home.”
“The enemy will not come here. The mongrels are beside me, protecting me,”
Both stopped to listen to the shrieks, the clamor and uproar. The siren wails and the brawls. A hoarse-voiced commander gave orders on a megaphone. A Carrabin was shot, it detonated with a thunderous boom. They could smell the stench of smoke billowing two streets away. A scent of burning tires.
Julie pinched her lips. She stepped sideways.
A slobber dog strolled close to grandma. It stopped, groaned at Julie, and unveiled its canines. It ground its teeth, cocked its tail. The dog growled at the young girl. It groaned, grumbled, and leaned its head sideways. She stepped backwards.
“What’s up there in the sky?” Julie said, eying the dog.
Julie’s eyes cramped. She moved closer, her mouth ajar.
“Waiting for what?” Julie whispered, breathing in and out.
“The eclipse of a thousand years.”
Right there, it seemed as if glass was dropped to the ground, as if it broke, and scattered on all sides, as if the sound echoed asunder, soft and high pitched, shattering, resonating and startling everyone.
“The eclipse of a thousand years?” Julie asked. Her chest swelled then declined. Once more, her chest swelled then declined.
Grandma said, “Yes, the eclipse of a thousand years. It last occurred one thousand years ago when the moors ruled over Spain, when Robert the Pius ruled over the Franks. The same eclipse, which came when King Stephen of Hungary freed the Hungarians from the Holy Roman Empire.
“The eclipse is forthcoming, my dear. The sky will split in two, unleash its power and break every chain. Look up to it. We will be victorious. The night will turn into day. Justice will prevail. You will see something quite rare and unique. Arcane and mysterious. The walls will crumble, and you will witness it. Our oppressors will be defeated. You are too young to see the signs, or understand their meaning.”
Julie stared agog, grasping for words, or a sentence, and then mumbled, “But … we shouldn’t … I think we should fight, Gran’ma. We … We shouldn’t wait for whatever’s outside to save us. It’s only us here.”
Right there, Grandma swiveled her head. She glared at her granddaughter. Clumps of wrinkles lined around her mouth.
“Wait and see. You will witness it, and remember me when the prophecy turns true. Now go back home,” the wise woman said.
Julie teetered away, with drooping shoulders. Up she looked, at the black shroud. A hollow sky, a myriad of interrogations. Her grandmother’s wisdom had kept the sisters alive. The elderly woman had seen life and understood the gist of truth. It seemed like the moment was forthcoming, the time when the wall would collapse. Julie peeked at the hulking watchtower. It seemed that its days were numbered, perhaps it would be crushed by the weight of the cosmic force, when the sky would split. Will there be a typhoon, lightning and thunder, or perhaps the advent of prophetic beasts from hell?
Two days later, the ruthless troops had left. Milk and medicine were in short supply, eggs were rationed. The people had to recycle the wax to mold new candles. They all queued in line for water and bread.
That night, Julie catered to her curiosity therefore she carried a chair outside, and sat next to grandma. Both of them watched the stardust pervading the sky, with arms crossed around their chests, and feet firmly on the ground.
Grandma said, “Two years ago, your parents passed away. They tried to escape through the tunnels, for a better future, but the sentinels foiled it. But –“
Right there, something miraculous happened. Up, in the depth of the gloom, the moon glimmered. Light gradated from one shade to the other, from the cloudbanks to the ether, from the twilight to the outer layer. A gap transpired, the sun set forth, aligning its ring with the oozing moon. One spherical realm over the other. One breathe of hope after another.
Down in the streets, they could see, the scribblings on the walls and the colors of the trees. They could see the pigeons on the pavement and the glowing dew on the weeds. They could see their own shadows on the ground.
Men and women ventured outside despite the curfew. Some were bald headed, some slim and some stumpy. Some in their nightclothes, some in their day clothes. They glanced at the fulgent sun. They could see, the flossy clouds and the gliding willows. They could see, the cerulean sky and the glossy rays. They cheered and they jabbed.
Julie and Grandma stood up, staring in awe. Up, a sphere of light hallowed for the moon. Up, the coat of valor enshrined above the ground. Up, gravity and its flowerless fields bloomed. But it all stood for the wondrous too soon.
It had only lasted an hour. Light began to wane and darkness took over. Quietly, the people turned around, lumbered back into their own homes, with eyes looking down. Julie and Grandma gripped their chairs, Julie led her grandmother home.
It drizzled for days, Grandma and Julie languished in wait. Still captives, they stared at the moon under the curfew, at the wall, and the towering guards. The cycles of the moon iterated, but they still waited. Still prisoners to fate.
Grandma never left the apartment again.