Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureFall 2015
One Use For The Elderly
By Lyn McConchie
They came marching down the road, bright young faces, singing some song old Anaru couldn’t understand. Their uniforms were clean, their boots shined, and their sergeant and officer marched with them. Anaru smiled, both men were on his side of their column. He laid the sights of his ancient rifle on the sergeant, breathed in slowly, held the shot for a fraction of a second and fired. His forefinger flipped up in the reload that had given his great-great-grandfather such firing speed in the First World War, and he shot again.
Then he was rolling. His rheumatism was something fierce at this hour of the morning, but to stay in position was to die. From the other side of the road he heard Heni start shooting. She was as old as he and her rifle had belonged to another of his ancestor’s generation, but he’d patiently taught her the rapid-fire skill, and she’d always been a good shot. It was useful on a farm. The enemy column had broken up in disarray, it was the lesson brought home by his people in both World wars, and he’d listened. “Shoot the sergeant first, then the officers. Then the men, take positions that won’t have you shooting each other and catch the enemy in a crossfire.”
They’d done that. Both officers were down, and the thirty young men didn’t know which way to run. Hemi was toward their front and if they ran forward, she took them out. If they ran back, Anaru was there. Half the column was down before the soldiers circled, sorted out where the enemies were lying in cover and their fire was effective. The enemy guns fell silent, first one, then the other. Cautious at first, then more boldly the soldiers advanced. They found their killers and stood, a small circle around each. The singsong of their language alien to the quiet green land.
“They’re so old! And look at their guns, how could they have shot so fast?”
“They must have had other weapons.” But no search found any other.
“We can’t carry all our dead.”
They couldn’t, they had wounded that must be carried, so they dug a large hole and laid those of their group in that, in the front yard of the big, weather-beaten old house. Then they considered the two enemy bodies. By their tradition you honored the old, and by soldier’s tradition you honored the enemy who had fought and died well. These fulfilled both traditions, but... there was no one to give orders so they did as seemed best to them. They laid the honored enemies in a corner of the grave, ancient worthless guns in their hands. Then they spoke prayers and covered the bodies, before reforming to march on, they took their wounded with them, but behind they left silence on a farm that had never known it before.
Two days later young men and women arrived. They opened the grave carefully, and looked at the bodies a long time before covering them again. Bitter smiles noted the total. Two for sixteen--a fitting epitaph for warriors. They left, and the farm fell into longer silence. While in another place a column marched. Two officers, thirty young soldiers. They saw an old woman panic, hobbling away from them towards a house, cabbage leaves in her hand, fear in every movement. They gave chase and she vanished into the house, disappeared and they could not find her.
Oh well, she was ancient, there was no danger – but, there was food. The old one had been cooking, a big casserole of steak was ready to eat, another still bigger pot of boiled potatoes with butter ready for those in a dish. It never occurred to even the officers to ask why so much food for one ancient lady? They sat and shared it out, laughing at the thought of her chagrin. An hour later they began to die. When the last of them stopped moving a wall panel opened and Margaret Johanson stepped out. It was hard work after that, as she dragged them to the farm’s offal hole one by one, using the small trolley she normally used to move animal feed, despoiling them before disposal.
The report went back to the camouflaged headquarters deep in the bush-clad hills. None for thirty-two, with weapons, ammunition and other gear. Margaret played her game once more before the third group was faster. She died, but so did they. Two days later men and women came. The enemy bodies went into the offal hole, their weapons and gear packed for removal. Margaret’s body went into her bedroom, lovingly laid out on the bed, flanked by the now cleaned casserole pots. A warrior should display her weapons. Then they fired the house. One for ninety-six. Honor to a great warrior.
Outside a small village, soldiers marched down a road. There were shots, running feet, the sight of a healthy man who raced, modern weapon in hand for some sanctuary. The soldiers followed before the officers could call them back. He bolted into a hole in the ground. Some sort of mine shaft? The troops followed, each eager to close with an enemy. And from the mine an explosion rocked the landscape as the mouth collapsed. Two officers were left to stand staring at what was now their troops’ grave. They would lose their rank for this.
Two days later men and women came to stand and look at where the old mine had been. One for thirty – and that one had had only a gun beautifully and convincingly carved from wood - and a cancer that was eating him alive, now that the country was over-run and none of its people was allowed hospital treatment. Ah well, since the invasion the enemy had needed the hospitals more, anyhow. And in the deep bush and the mountains doctors still survived to help all of the healthy who’d fled there. There was little food, less comfort, and the old and the ill would not have survived. They had made their own choices.
A column marched down the road, sixty soldiers, five officers, all watching eagle-eyed for the enemy. It was custom to march rather than ride in a vehicle, it fostered fitness, comradeship, and discipline. They sang as they marched, a wavering atonal tune of home - not a song of conquest, although in other places and at other times in this war they had sung those too. And down the length of the road firing began in a storm of death. Four officers died in that first few seconds. One lived to shout orders that organized the troops into line of battle. There was a brief, savage fight and when it was done twenty-seven soldiers lay dead, with two dying, thirteen were wounded, and those unhurt raced to see the faces of the enemy.
“Old? They are ancient! Look at their guns, I have never seen guns so old.”
“I have, my many-times-grandfather carried one. It is above our mantelpiece now.”
And in a lower tone so that the officer – back with the wounded - should not hear. “And if our country were invaded I think that he would rise from his grave to carry it again against invaders.” Eight young men stared nervously at the bodies as their friend continued. “Why are we here? What can this land give that we cannot produce ourselves? And why are we killing those we are taught to revere for their age and wisdom?”
He stooped and straightened out the nearest body. John Paewai had turned eighty the week before he died and he looked every year of it, his wife, Jean, had been six months younger – her eightieth birthday would never come. Dai Shun laid their weapons in their hands, and stood back, watching as his friends did the same for the other three bodies. Then he saluted, and his friends bowed their heads briefly in acknowledgement, before returning to aid their officer and the wounded.
From a tree a child watched as the soldier’s bodies were placed in a shallow grave. The enemy would be left to the weather and any scavengers, the officer decreed. She’d sneaked away to be with her great-grandparents, now they were dead and she would not let them lie un-avenged. The officer shouted orders, the soldiers formed into the marching column and the officer took his place at their head. Tiny, slender eight-year-old Linda Kokare slid down the tree, picked up the old rifle John Paewai had laid down as he died, and lined up the sights, a fence post taking the rifle’s weight. She held firm on the shouting figure – and pulled the trigger. The officer fell, as every soldier took cover and shot back.
They found her lying there, still grasping the rifle and they wept. They also talked on their return to their base, Dai Shun foremost in the subsequent discussions amongst his comrades. He was shot when an officer overheard, but that only added fuel to the fire of questions by those who wanted to know why they were here, whose war this was and to whose benefit? The enemy was elusive, and they were losing soldiers at an average rate of twenty to one – and that one was usually some ancient person or a child – which increasingly demoralized the troops. The invasion died, if the soldiers won’t fight you can’t shoot them all, or who does your fighting?
There was never an official peace made, no war had been declared so how could anyone sign a peace treaty? But the invaders withdrew from the two large and many small islands, and left the people to pick up their lives again – minus almost every person over sixty and most of those who’d been sick or physically weak.
Without fuss plaques were added to every war memorial in the country over the next year. They listed those who’d died, heading the plaques as – To Heroes of The Conflict. The day after the plaque went up a boy stood looking at the bronze tablet in their tiny township. It listed the names and ages of nine people, all of them between sixty-eight and ninety-two. Anaru – named after his grandfather – grunted as he read the names.
“One use for the elderly, I guess.”
His adult companion did not reprove the words. He knew how his son felt, and besides, the boy had tears in his eyes, as did his father.
At various times in her life Lyn McConchie has been a stallion groom, a model, made electric blankets, and run a Government Department. She began writing professionally in 1990, since which time she has seen 34 books and 280+ stories published across 9 countries and in 4 languages with ongoing sales. She lives in New Zealand, sharing her 19th century farmhouse with Thunder her Ocicat and 7469 books by other authors. Lyn has a small farm on which she breeds colored sheep and has free-range hens and geese. She explains that some of what her subconscious produces has nothing to do with her and she politely declines to be blamed for any offense that may be taken. Her book, Sherlock Holmes: Beastly Mysteries was published by Wildside Press April 2015 and her SF/Disaster novel, Vestiges of Flames appeared in Lethe in July 2015. Her 2014 mystery, Sherlock Holmes: Repeat Business, is currently shortlisted for the Silver Falchion Award, to be announced this October.