Words of Life and Love
The letter is a small thing. It is written on gleaming white paper in cursive letters. A thin, manicured hand seals it and perfect lips kiss it as the postman stands waiting next to his bike. It is slipped into a large hessian bag and taken just a little distance. In the post office, it is stamped and sorted. Then, from the growing, gleaming city of New York, it travels. Its journey lasts a while; over oceans and many, many countries. It travels to a colder climate, where snow adorns mountains and covers roads and houses. Here, men are afraid to travel, and the letter passes through many different pairs of hands. Some are businessmen, caught up in work and life, and then, as the letter nears its destination, the hands are rougher and stronger – the hands of soldiers and workers. Then, finally, it passes into young hands, the hands of a child.
In Sarajevo, everything is dead. The once tall skyscrapers now lie on the ground, glass and metal strewn out amongst the dust. Houses stand as half empty skeletons, their adornments spread out for the world to see. There is a couch pierced by bullet holes. There is a rocking horse that has been blown apart by a shell. The family are gone, maybe dead. The child hurries through the rubble, stopping only momentarily to pick up a piece of rocking horse. Then bullets sound in the distance and the child runs again. Soon, he meets up with his sister. She is looking frail today, though she still speaks louder than ever. Her squeaky, chirruping voice sounds through the street and her older brother shushes her quickly. He tells her that they must find Mr. Robbie quickly, or else he might be angry. The boy knows that he wouldn't be, but he wants his sister to hurry. Sniper Alley is close and the afternoon light is too bright.
They come to the camp and Mr. Henry is there, but not Mr. Robbie. The boy knows he cannot hand the letter to Mr. Henry or he will be jealous and want to tear it up. Instead, he slips it inside the pocket of his anorak. The camp is the only place in Sarajevo where they can all be safe. But it will only be safe if Mr. Robbie and Mr. Henry stay. The boy is scared, now. What if the letter makes Mr. Robbie want to go home? Maybe he should not give it to Mr. Robbie after all. He darts around the corner and crouches down. His fumbling hands tear at the delicate seal. The letter is pulled out and the boy's grimy hands make faint smudges on the delicate words. No matter how much he twists and turns, peering at the paper, he cannot make any sense of it. He is defeated and slumps down in the snow, hanging his head. After a moment he hears his name being called and hurries back to the camp, the letter lying forgotten in the dirty snow.
A few hours later, as the boy and his sister are sleeping, shots ring out among the ghosts of houses. The boy sits up and pushes his sister to wake her. There is still no sign of Mr. Robbie, or Mr. Henry. The boy gives a little shudder and tells his sister to wake the others. He peers out into the dark street. There is Danger out there, he knows. That Danger does not care for whom it affects. Children are the same as any other person, according to Danger. And Danger is coming here. The boy can hear it.
The other boys are coming now, grumbling and giving each other sleepy looks of discontent. What is going on? The shots ring out again, and this time they are even closer than before. The children look to one another, their eyes wide and unblinking, for the Danger is certainly coming. Then there are bright lights and all of a sudden the boy grabs his sister's hand and yells at the others to run away. They flee as bullets cut through the glass, the walls, tearing their familiar surroundings to shreds. The soldiers come after that, their big boots crunching the dirt. They look around for living people, but the children have fled and Mr. Henry and Mr. Robbie have not come back. One soldier picks up the letter and tries to read it, but he cannot. He puts it inside his jacket.
But hark! People are coming! The soldiers cannot stay, unless they want to lose their lives. They disappear like smoke. Their destination is Sniper Alley. If they can attack when the night is black and dark, they might surprise the enemy. Their soldier-minds are excited at the thought of blood and they walk on, making no sound.
The next day, the sun rises upon the dead. The soldiers, their minds occupied by military blood-lust, have failed. Their corpses are strewn, with glassy eye and blood breast, upon the road in Sniper Alley. The letter is there too, crumpled and bloody, but still legible. Over the road, the boy sees it and his eyes light up. His sister is nearby, buying food from the small markets. Mr. Robbie is near as well. If he can give Mr. Robbie the letter and see him give a rare smile… The decision has already been made in his child-mind. His adrenaline pulses and the boy grinds his foot in the dirt, like he has seen in movies. Maybe it will make him run faster. Then he zooms across, his footsteps clattering on the broken pavement.
The shots sound in great volleys. But they are too late, for the boy has already made it to the dead soldier's body. He has picked up the letter and held it in small, shaking hands, a triumphant smile wide across his face. Now he looks around. He is thinking of Mr. Robbie as he crouches, ready to run, about the loving smile that will creep across his face, about the hand that covers his mouth as he opens it and reads the first few words, about the tears of joy that will start to pour down his-
The small body crumples to the ground. But for the bullet hole in his stained shirt, he could be sleeping.
A few minutes later, Mr. Robbie comes. He is calling out the boy's name and is impatient now. The boy's sister clings onto his arm. He sees the crumpled body on the pavement and runs, detaching the little girl. He curses as he lifts the boy's head, hurriedly checking for a pulse. As his shaking hands come away, streaking tears course down his cheeks. He swiftly picks the body up and runs, the boy hanging limply in his arms like the murdered Gavroche. His head droops as he lays the boy on safe ground. He has failed his mission. He is a defeated man. Instead of protecting this small boy, he led him to his death. He slowly closes the boy's eyes and finds his book in the pocket of his jacket. It is The Catcher in the Rye and he has had this copy since he was fifteen. It is his favourite book. Inside it are many loose papers and Mr. Robbie takes out one. It is a small poem by Robert Burns, 'Comin' thro the Rye', scrawled out on an old yellowing envelope. To Mr. Robbie it means everything. It is the reason he is here. He folds it into a small piece and places it inside the boy's bloody jacket. Only now does he see the letter, crumpled in that small, cold hand.
He slowly unpeels the pages and begins to read. His teeth find his bottom lip and his brown hand wipes over his eyes. He finds his book again and puts the letter inside, hiding it under the folds of his jacket. When he is safe, he will find a pen and hurriedly scrawl a reply before giving it to Mr. Henry, who will deliver it into safe hands. But now he must bury the boy's body. He will find a peaceful place, a grove of trees, somewhere where flowers grow. He nods a sad goodbye to Mr. Henry and kisses the little girl lightly on the head. Then, carrying the boy's body, he walks.
The letter passes from the safe hands of Mr. Henry to many, many others. It goes through the strong hands of soldiers, then the cracked hands of the market women, the neat hands of housewives, the clever hands of businessmen. It travels over country borders and great seas once again. It is given back to the postman and put into his hessian bag where it finds the woman on her doorstep. As she opens it, she recognises her own handwriting as well as the scrawled reply from her husband. She sees the dirt and the wet patches from the snow, the blood and tear stains. Her hands hold this letter that has been held by so many others – by hands clean and grimy, delicate and rough, young and old. The hands that held the boy's body, that dug the small grave have sent this letter back to her. And, in spite of herself, she cries. For even though her husband is gone now, his last words to her are sweet and kind. Those beautiful words were his goodbye, his last gift to her.
Those perfect lips kiss the letter one last time and the manicured hand places it on the mantelpiece where it will never, ever be forgotten.