Civil War: An Excerpt
By Lamia Rahman & Lipika Raghunathan
In this multi-perspective historical science fiction piece, a grandmother and granddaughter communicate in order to understand how a civil war changed the world they once knew and kept them away from loved ones.
Southsri Riba, The Past
I write this knowing how uncertain the future is. Even the near future. I hear the bomb blasts in the distance. My father is somewhere out there. The polluted air has made for a poor crop season so mother boils the dried old radishes and onions from the cellar in a watery soup. My sleep is poor. The laced curtains can’t contain the unnatural, neon glow that drifts from the battlegrounds. The Northres Riba inches closer into our territory everyday. Even if it ends in loss, I would rather this excruciating battle be over.
I lay the pen down and look around my bare room. Mother mentioned she had something important to tell me at dinner. Daylight is fading, so I light a candle and sit in the corner by the dim glow. My stomach rumbles and I can feel my ribs through my blouse. What does mother have to say to me? I wonder. It can’t be anything positive considering how things are going. I wonder if something has happened to my father. Or maybe we are being reassigned to a different military base and I will need to gather and pack all of my things by tonight.
We have only been in this encampment for a few months now. The last cabin that the military put us in was much nicer than this one. It was closer to town so mother could get freshly baked bread in the morning and there was a big fireplace in the middle of the small space. Now we just waited—hungry and cold—for any news, good or bad. The war has been going on for a few years. It started small, economic and cold but then everything erupted in a full-scale attack once overstepping of territory and invasion came into play. I think of the future every so often. This can’t go on forever. I wonder if the future will be brighter. More opportunities with children playing in the street or going to school and laughing in the clean air.
Joonipar, The Future
The offensive sun and sweating wood, along with the humidity fogging up the room, tells us that it’s summer. And right now, I would be cooling off with an ice pop, laying on the wet grass reading a book. But the sound of the moving van and the shuffling helpers tell a different story, and I’m facing cardboard boxes in my new room. It’s smaller than my old room and the walls are a light green that has grayed over the years. The bed frame is old and shaky, but Mom said she’d replace it.
I don’t know how to feel about it. There are pieces of me that are content, happy even, since now I finally have my own room after always sharing one with my younger brother. There’s no reason to be mad about it, but I can’t help it. I miss my old town, the home I grew up in. I miss the ice cream shop at the corner of the street where I’d go after school with my friends. I miss the river, where I’d swim every Thursday night even though I wasn’t allowed to. I was forced to say goodbye to it all because of my father’s new job here, and I resent it every minute.
I put down the box of clothes I’ve been holding and walk back downstairs, where I bump into one of the helpers and a box of books falls to the ground, causing a cacophony as they domino down the stairs. I help to put the books back into the box and offer to bring them to the library, which is the only highlight of this new house. As I put the books onto the shelves, I notice one of them is not really a book. The cover is ragged, with patches of cardboard peeking out of the dark frayed fabric, and the pages yellowed and crinkly. I open the book to reveal a diary, every page filled with cursive writing. The first page is inscribed with a signature.
Southsri Riba, age 19.
There is very little left of her since the war, only a picture and a saree. They stay with my mom, who was born right before the war ended. No one even knows who my grandfather is.
I had not known of the existence of this diary until now. Why would my mother keep this from me? She wasn’t able to become fond of my grandmother because of her demise in her infancy, but she kept her belongings sacred and dear as a daughter would. Before I can inspect the diary further, Mom calls me from the other room and I hide the book within a crack behind the bookcase. For some reason, I know she kept this diary from me for a reason and that if she found it, she’d hide it from me like she did all these years. And I cannot let that happen. I need to know who my grandmother is.
Southsri Riba, The Past
The day always starts out so tediously. Maybe it’s because the sun is obscured by pollution and smog. I don’t wake up to natural light these days. Come to think of it, I don’t know the last time I saw a speck of blue in the sky. Mother sat me down last night. She had baked a dry rye loaf, something to dip into the flavorless soup before me. She looked so tired. Sometimes she looked more tired than my father, even though he was the one in the midst of battle. I rarely see him, though, so maybe he’s more worn out these days. This dinner with Mother was odd however. She turned to me and said, “Kalina Mai, how are you feeling these days?” She brought up the war and asked my thoughts. She never does that. I thought maybe something happened to Father. I shrugged. Mother then mentioned she felt there was a better way for me. A way out. I don’t know what she meant because all travel in the region is restricted. There was no way we could even leave as refugees. When I questioned her further about what she meant, Mother told me that it was too soon to discuss it yet but to keep my hope alive.
My eyes grow heavy as the candle burns out. Rough winds push against my windows and the rotting wood of the walls. It is better to retire and sleep now at 7 p.m. The temperature will drop even more in the next few hours. I get ready for bed and pull the comforter from the starched, itchy sheets. I have to curl up by the side of my bed to retain any body heat, but before I know it, my arms grow heavy and I fall into a deep and blissful slumber.
I wake, disoriented. I haven’t been asleep for that long; I can feel it in my eyes. My body is alert and on guard. Something has woken me up. My attention turns to the window outside my room. Loud and sustained thumping on the already weak and flimsy wood panels. My heart speeds up, racing as my mind floods with questions. Fear overwhelms me enough that I force my eyes closed and return back to sleep, lest I see something even worse than what I have heard.
Joonipar, The Future
Today is my first day of school, and I’m petrified. Mom and I are sitting in the car in the school parking lot an hour before school starts, since I have to register before class. She’s on the phone and l attempt to focus on the sound of the rough wind and the wind chimes outside; the cacophony failing to fog my mind.
I’ve never been the new kid before, and I’ve never had to get to know new people. Now, I’m in a town where every block I turn, I’m faced with unfamiliarity. I’m forced to face hundreds of students whose faces I have never laid my eyes upon. It’s all so new and constantly reminding me that I don’t know anyone, and no one knows me. That I have to try to make friends. It was easier before, because everyone I met back home I knew through my friends or my parents somehow. I should be excited and thrilled because who wouldn’t want to live in a big city, but this city is too big for me.
Mom taps my shoulder. “Jooni, don’t be nervous,” she says soothingly as she takes my hand in hers, “you’re going to be just fine.”
“I know, I know. It’s just… I’m just scared I’ll be alone.”
She pets my head, her gesture full of motherly love and concern. “You won’t be. I’m confident there are lots of nice people, and you’ll make friends immediately.”
To be honest, I don’t know if I want to make new friends. But I don’t tell her this. I haven’t been telling her a lot of things ever since we moved, ever since I got my hands on my grandmother’s diary.
The entries span the middle of the war, when she has already become accustomed to her way of life. Some of the entries are of her describing the sky or parts of her home, as if that’s the only normalcy she has hold of. But the diary is incomplete, and multiple pages at the end have been cleanly ripped out, something you wouldn’t realize unless you’re paying attention. I turn my attention to my mom and give her an assuring smile. We then hug, get out of the car, and walk toward the school. I make sure to walk beside her, instead of trailing behind like I want to.
Southsri Riba, The Past
My hand shakes as I write this entry. This morning I woke up to a foul smell. I barely remembered the fear that had shocked my system in the middle of the night. I tried to stroll out into the kitchen but the smell intensified. I held my hands to my face as I ventured further through our little shack of a home. My eyes watered in anguish but I was able to make out the figure of my mother sitting at the table in front of a gigantic steaming pot. I mustered a stifled but confused gasp. Mother’s eyes were glazed over.
“This is it,” she said.
“What?” I tried to speak up without gagging on my words.
Mother looked at me with dark, piercing eyes.
“Mother?” I spurt out again. “What? What is it?”
“This is how I can save you.”
I shake my head confused, once more. “Huh?”
“I had to look through my mother’s own books,” she says. “Your grandmother. She was a medicine woman.” My mother bites her lip. “Medicine woman” was the polite way to refer to it. The shamans. What we were fighting the war over. The reason why blood has been shed and our region is known for genocide and mass murder. I knew my family had some connection to it but I had assumed that the shaman women in my family were generations ago.
“What are you talking about?” I ask again.
“I know how to do it,” mother continues. “She taught me before they…” she gulps, “I can do it but it has to be fast. Or they’ll know. They’ll kill me.”
“Do what?” I insist again.
She looks down again at the rotting wood table. “Condense your soul. Compress it and put it in an object. Hide it and keep you safe until you’re… we’re ready to bring you back.”
I stare, mouth hanging open.
Mother’s eyes fill with tears. “It’s the only way.”
Joonipar, The Future
School, so far, has been alright. I made a friend, much to Mom’s delight. Despite her supportive words, I knew she didn’t quite believe I would try. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to do much. Niall was assigned to be my lab partner in chemistry and from then on, he’s been around. His optimism about school offsets my demure nature, and it doesn’t seem like he minds so much. Nor do I, to be honest. I’ve been too bothered with the diary. At this point, I’ve reread it so many times, aching for some closure. What happened to my grandmother at the end? I know she didn’t die since my mom is alive, but what happened to her parents? How did they die? How did my grandmother survive the end of the war? The last entry felt very cautious, her words sparse and striking as if she couldn’t say the words, even in private.
“Joonipar?” I come out of my trance to look at Niall. He looks awfully concerned. “You okay? You look distracted.”
“Yeah, I’m good.” I look down and see the multiple torn pieces of my notebook paper that I’ve tightly rolled between my fingers. I look back up to him, and he raises his eyebrows. He has a scar in his right eyebrow; it’s the first thing I noticed about him. “I’m just bored.”
“Well, class is starting, so you won’t be bored anymore!” He smiles, and I return a small grin although I don’t feel the same about history class. I bring my attention to the chalkboard, where our teacher has written The Civil War (2121-2127) and I immediately become alert. This is the war my grandmother survived.
Southsri Riba, The Past
Mother sits me down, wearily. I can hear her knees crack as she strains to pull the pot closer to me. The scent permeates my nostrils and I immediately begin coughing and gagging again.
“Drink this,” she commands
I take another whiff. “I can’t,” I sputter.
“You have to.”
Mother pushes a tin cup toward me and tilts my head back while holding my nose. We move the tumbler to my mouth and I feel the rush of hot liquid down my throat, burning a hole through into my stomach. I begin retching and trying to upchuck the vile and chemical-tasting liquid, but mother keeps my mouth closed like her hands are heavy duty hinges.
“Keep it down,” she insists. “It’s the right dose.”
It is all in my stomach now but the metallic taste still coats my tongue and palate.
I gasp and muster a squeak. “What now?” I ask.
I feel myself go gradually lightheaded, like when my friends and I used to play the hold-your-breath game or if we ever had a big whiff of turpentine-based paint.
“Continue on as normal,” Mother says. “You may feel weak. If so, go to sleep. It may be easier that way.” She kisses the top of my sweat-soaked forehead. “This is for the best, I promise.”
My eyes grow dim and the room begins to spin. With Mother’s help, I stagger over to the old loveseat by the window and close my eyes. I see shapes of light on the backs of my eyelids and hear people’s voices. I want to look but I don’t have the strength to open my eyes or stir for a second. I just feel Mother’s heavy hand on my back and drool trickling from my mouth and I follow the shapes, like shooting stars, through my mind’s eye. They take me past the universe and beyond our galaxy. I watch in an effort to not get lost in this strange, new world. I feel myself growing smaller and smaller the further out I travel. I am compressed but not uncomfortable. I feel exactly the same but I know I am small and distant from myself.
I watch as my body gently drifts away from me and I become bare, like a hermit crab without a home.
Lipi used a prompt generator to inspire this piece and it quickly turned into a collaborative writing process. Every Wednesday, we would hand the writing off to the other person so they could write their entry. Lamia wrote the entries from the granddaughter’s perspective while Lipi wrote from the grandmother’s perspective. We often conferred on how we wanted the story to go.
Lamia Rahman is an American writer and poet based in New York City. After high school, she plans to study English so she can write confidently for the masses. In her free time, she reads 800-page books and watches films that make her angry or elated. She then proceeds to talk about them endlessly to her family, friends and Twitter.
Lipika Raghunathan is a marketing associate and creative living in New York City, where she has resided for her entire life. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University in 2018 with a bachelor’s in psychology and was *this* close to minoring in South Asian Studies. When she’s not writing poetry, Lipika is probably drinking iced coffee and watching YouTube videos about Kamala Harris… or Friends. Check out her portfolio here: lipikaraghunathan.com