By Gary Quinn (839 words)
Moments before the bomb fell, Anja knew her children were going to die. She knew she would die also, but she screamed for them. And when the screaming stopped and her body lay broken, she was still there – dead – but present nonetheless. She lay in the dark wondering what had happened. She could remember the children clinging to her, all of them counting, staring at the ceiling, listening for the pig. Of course, she thought calmly, as her memory returned. They had played the squealing pig – and this was what it was to lose.
The bombs come from the hills. A dull thud announces their departure and, as the mortars sail through the air, their journey is tracked by a loud squeal that fills the town with dread. Over time, people notice that the thud of the mortar’s departure to the crash of arrival takes fifteen seconds to complete. Knowing this, the squeal itself, although terrifying as its pitch grows, becomes strangely comforting as the sound falls away, sailing overhead to crash down on someone else. If you hear the pig’s squeal peak as you count seven, eight or nine, or even less, you’re safe, well out of range. But, if after ten, that squeal keeps growing, then it’s time to run. Likely as anything the pig is after you. And so they call it the squealing pig – a game to make you think you have a chance.
It’s bath night. The children, fizzing with excitement, run around their small wooden house, splashing water and making too much noise. They charge the air with their games and Anja’s aching back softens, her shoulders relax as she sits on the floor by the bath, watching them tease and play with each other. She rests her head on her arm, stretched along the side of the cooling bath, the now grey water a rich soup of her children’s dirt, skin, hair and, no doubt, pee. She sketches her initials on the surface, as the two youngest, naked and free, chase each other along the narrow hallway. Their heads are tossed back as they run, their bodies overflowing with laughter. The older children, wrapped in towels, sing and laugh as they comb each other’s hair, wobbling on the shared space of the closed toilet seat. The room wraps itself around them, hiding its dowdy appearance in a mirror cloudy with steam. Anja closes her eyes, lulled by the warmth and the fun and the tiny end-of-week reprieve before cleanup and the battle for bed.
Her eyes snap wide as the grunt of the pig is launched into the air. The children stop short, their energy suddenly held static in the room.
“The pig, the pig,” they shout, and throw themselves on their mother, laughing at the now-familiar game. She quiets them and begins the count.
“One,” she shouts, pulling the youngest closer.
“Two,” the squeal grows louder. Anja considers going outside but knows it’s no safer, there’s no basement or place to hide.
“Three, four, five,” they count together, just like they’ve done so many times before.
The children glance to the ceiling, their small bodies tightening as they squeeze ever closer to their mother’s frame. She can smell the soap in their hair, taste the warmth of their clean, smooth skin, so soft to the touch.
“Six,” her voice calls out, a crack betraying the fear in her belly, the dry catch in her throat. She reaches a hand to caress her daughter’s damp hair, the smooth curve at the back of her neck.
“Seven”. Surely it should have passed over by now? Her youngest boy presses his cheek to her breast, gripping a curl of Anja’s long dark hair, pulling it across his face as a veil. She winces and snatches it from his hand as he tugs too hard.
“Eight.” This was their record. One of the children tries to dart away, scuttling for the doorway, but Anja catches her by the ankle, forcing the child back to the huddled group.
“Nine,” the squeal isn’t loud enough. It hasn’t peaked. Anja’s skin tightens, the blood in her ears throbs, and she digs her nails into the skin of one of her childrens’ arms.
“Ten, eleven.” The bare lightbulb flickers. The walls seem to bend and push inward, the thin yellow curtains softly dancing in time with the twisted muscles in Anja’s belly.
“Twelve.” The youngest can’t count this high, the pig has always passed over by now. They look up at her. Five sets of dark pleading eyes, shiny with tears, huge with fear, waiting for a signal. Anja wants to scream at them. For them.
“Close your eyes,” she whispers.
“Thirteen,” she counts in her head, the terror stealing her voice, the squeal louder than she had ever heard.
‘Please God, not fourteen,’ she thinks, the air suddenly silent. ‘Who alive knows the sound of fourteen?’
“Mama,” a child whimpers. Then the ground roars and the world eats them alive.
(Inspired by a true story.)