The Siege

Gustave Doré, "Death on the Pale Horse" (1865)
Gustave Doré, "Death on the Pale Horse" (1865)

A war with no end gives way to an extraordinary, endless summer of peace and healing — all betrayed by idle cruelty and the failure of memory.

The fighting lasted for years, perhaps decades. 

Buildings were reduced to gravel, bullet by bullet. Neighbors were starved or raped or humiliated. Children played peacekeeper and sniper. Their parents’ hair had gone white or fallen out or lay wrapped with their bones in early graves, scattered among the memories of homes and order. 

It no longer mattered who had started the war or who was in the right. 

Suffering hung over everyone and brought no one satisfaction, least of all the gods who had once been entertained by humans. It had become too much. Because the ground was wet with blood and tears. Because the young should not be experts in shrouds and makeshift markers. 

The townspeople brought in negotiators to navigate the loss and implored the gods they had forgotten to end the pain. And the gods — of war, of hunting, of love, of all — could not bear to witness any more. They agreed that the citizens of this town should, from then on, live well into old age and die only of natural causes. 

It was the Time of Calm. 

For three generations the people lived in peace, thankful for long lives, surrounded by those they loved — or tolerated. 

For the first generation, it felt like a reprieve, a time to learn how to breathe again without the chest clinch of fear. When these children of war became the grandparents of peace, they marveled at their survival and luck, told their offspring to be grateful, to cherish each other and every breath that was full. 

Their children — like most children of survivors — absorbed these lessons, felt guilt when they would forget to mark each day with gratitude, and held on to the idea of tradition as they slowly let go of the rituals. 

It was the third generation, spoiled by comfort, that began to question the possibility of an entire town living into old age — no premature strokes, no fatal accidents, no suicides despite the pain deep in some. 

They began to test their theory that they were blessed or chosen or at least unique. In the way that children will pull a spider’s legs off to see if it will survive, they would throw themselves off roofs, first small and known, then from cliffs into waters cold and untested.

This is what they found: their bones would break, a few might become paralyzed, scars would not heal, but they never died — not a one. 

It took a few years for all the possibilities to flower in their minds. 

They began with the weak or different, asserting their strength and testing their cruelties quietly, behind stadiums, where their families and teachers could not hear. 

Slowly, the old divisions returned, and after a few years, or maybe decades, once the citizens had reduced each other to crawling, limping, blind, muted and torn, the gods — horrified at the townspeople’s capacity for cruelty — lifted the blessing and once again welcomed the siege.

Heather Bourbeau’s fiction and poetry have been published in 100 Word Story, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cleaver, Eleven Eleven, Francis Ford Coppola Winery, The Cardiff Review, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. She is the Chapman University Flash Fiction winner and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been featured in several anthologies, including America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience (Sixteen Rivers Press), and Respect: Poems About Detroit Music (Michigan State University Press). She has worked with various UN agencies, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and UNICEF Somalia.

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