I tried to stay calm.
The air escaped my lungs, sucked out like a vacuum, emptied out into the soot stained sky. The taste of gunpowder was as harsh as the salt in the ocean. The barbed wires were daggers against my arm, a harness stretching from the twitch of my fingers to the edge of my collarbone. My lip quivered.
I was lucky. The soldier who had rushed in before me had cleared the path, though, soon, he was cleared away as well. All I could hope was that they would not noticed my blood tattered uniform, that the red had muted its bright, obnoxious blue hue. That the kick up of dust and ammo was enough for me to blend in.
It wasn’t. Their green helmets filled the gap in rapid succession, packed in rows along the trenches. They raised their guns, and fired.
I screamed as they berated me. I twisted my head. We were falling like dominoes. I had to do something.
I popped my shoulder out and pulled free from the fence, collapsing into the mud. I looked up.
I saw my arm, my arm, dangling from the iron fence, the threads of my turquoise sleeves clinging to the thin metal. It was not a clean cut, the marrow jagged and uneven, gnawed at a 45 degree angle. My blood, from above and below, curled around me, settling in a puddle along my limp body, soaking into my clothes, my flesh, like oil.
I screamed as they trampled me. The whistle was a foghorn, signaling an offensive front as my men fled. Their steel toes were relentless, shattering my spine, burying my face further into the ground as I twisted into the fetal position. My vision blurred as one eye hung lazily, pressed wide against the dirt.
I knew I should have died. The Germans were barbaric. They took no prisoners.
I could not open my eyes. A heavy fogged rested on my consciousness, drowning my thoughts in thick molasses.
My voice was hoarse. I could not say anything, and there was nothing to be said.
Passing out was not some wild occurrence. Over half the population experiences it at one point or the other in their lives. While it is common, it comes unexpectedly, and is mostly due to a block in blood flow to the brain.
I had at first though that this would be the case. But, the more time I have spent here, under a void cast by what must be a potent sedative, I have realized it must be psychological. I mean, yes, I was severely injured, but if it had to due to with blood flow…I would be dead.
Why wasn’t I dead?
“We can’t save her,” A voice grunted.
“I can’t let her die.”
I could see, but what I saw was…wrong. Blue and white streaks glossed over my dark eyes, mulling over my face in detached curiosity.
How did they know I was a girl?
“You’re being reckless!”
“I know what I’m doing!”
I blinked, and tilted my head down. Maybe this was just another night terror. Sleep paralysis. Insomnia. No, insomnia was the absence of sleep.
It was easy to have, though, on the Eastern Front, when the days were finished with nightly air raids from either side. I could never tell if the bombs were on our side or theirs. Most times it didn’t matter.
I looked to my left side, and sighed. It was okay, despite it being covered in ash and blood. My wrists were intact, and so was my brown, square hand. The hand I had used to thumb through volumes of the theory of evolution and the human anatomy. The hand I had used to sign into the French army, under my brother’s name. The hand I had used when I had fired my first gun.
Just to be sure, I had to check my right side. My neck shook, the smooth, cold surface underneath having a magnetic hold on my movement. I gasped.
I knew a missing arm would be a possibility. I knew I could see an unfilled space besides me, an emptiness carved out besides my hip. A bandaged stump.
I could have never been prepared for this. To see my arm, fully formed in a cast of steel. Indents, buttons, and wires were carved in and around its sleek, toned surface. Its glory was indescribable, like how the kings must have felt when they first found gold.
“We can’t just send her back,” A voice, somewhere around my forehead, growled. I recognized it from earlier, deep and slow spoken, like the one I had first heard.
“I’m not letting my work go to waste, her life to waste!”
I craned my neck to see this airier, higher pitched being. No luck. The bindings, invisible as they may be, were too strong.
“I suppose she could be…useful. Fine. We’ll send her down. But we’ll be back, back when we need her.”
A fresh layer of skin morphed over my mechanical arm, coating it in an illusion of flesh so realistic I had wondered if I had made the whole steel arm thing up. I waited for an explanation, something to be understood.
I never received one. With the prick of a needle to my waist, I blacked out again.
It has been several months, and the war was over. Instead of hearing the news echoed from the mouths of my superiors, I had heard from my parents, who had heard it from their parents, who had heard it from the market and so forth. I had been relieved of my position early due to developing a severe case of trench foot, which had to be immediately amputated.
They had been enthused to have me back. Our community had praised my role in the war, despite our unusual situation.
It was nice no longer being called a name which rested on a gravestone, etched out into a small stump besides a Baobab tree. A place that, no matter the season or our profit, was constantly decorated in a spread of flowers. A name that could never be forgotten or replaced.
Despite my past, my family’s past, life has been treating me kindly. I continued to labor on the farm, studying textbooks between milking and weed picking. I knew I could never become a teacher, let alone a biology teacher, but I couldn’t help myself. The pieces of literature were worth the search, the digging around and bargaining. They allowed me step outside of the crops and the seasons, the destiny of my life.
I was content, happy even. It’s just that…there was something else. On my mind. More constant than my dreams of science. Something…beyond me. Something I needed to thank.
I spent my evenings, after the dishes were washed and my sister’s children tucked, gazing at the stars from the patio. The rocking chair creaked as the cicadas and crickets stirred, and I could not help wonder, ponder if they would be back. Would they keep their word?
And, if they did return, would I want that? For things to change drastically, just as I was settling back into normality?
These thoughts swarmed my mind, kept me up at night; I tried to stay calm.