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the dead city
she (the teacher) has taken us out to one of the bombed towns.
it is horrific.
there are stones off-kilter just slightly as we start in, and i have a feeling that i am not going to like what i see.
the teacher chirps on and on about the dates and the reasons and the politics, how the destruction of "certain key towns" was necessary for victory. but no one is listening. most of them are in their gaggles, talking, giggling, completely unaware of what we are about to see. she only told us we were going on a field trip "to the ruins."
closer and closer to the center we go. the buildings here were mostly cement and glass, skyscrapers with the tops torn off, like a giant toddler upset with his toys had thrown a fit. the glass in the windows is partly shattered, and it paradoxically reflects the calm, clear blue shade of the sky in a puddle of normal in the middle of the devastation.
to my right is the top part of a Corinthian column. just sitting there.
over behind the teacher is the bell that, she says, hung in the churchhouse. she clucks her tongue as she says that word. churchhouse. as if to say, "well, children, you know what that means." it means noncompliance, it means disobedience. it means rebellion, and she makes sure that we understand this, harping on and on about religion and religious music and religious art and all of these things, she explains, which must be stamped out. for all our sakes. she states in a grave voice that we might be dead without our laws.
i can't pay attention because in a gap among the skyscrapers i can see a residential neighborhood, houses mostly stone, and they are all scattered all over the place. completely fallen apart. i mean, these stones are all over the ground, smashed to pieces. chips of silvery and blue-gray and brownish rock coat the ground in a layer of deadly slivers. there might as well be a sign: look! we've been bombed! next door, there's a single chimney still rising up out of a pile of ash. just ash, and that's all. soot and smoke and ash, with the occasional beam that shows that this was a house of wood. more noncompliance, but the scarlet chimney rising from the black ashes is quite an image.
one of my braver peers raises a hand, interest sparked by the teacher's death comment, and the teacher appears surprised. "yes?" she says.
the girl replies, "did anyone from this town die in the bombing?"
the teacher's mouth forms a perfect O. "no!" she exclaims. "of course not! through the use of infotraitors, the town was evacuated in time. who can tell me about infotraitors?"
she calls on a boy whose hand is thrust eagerly into the air. he says, "the continental convention of 512 A.R., which decided the laws of warfare and compliance, approved the use of infotraitors in combat situations. though normal spies are subject to the GB law on traitors, the larger, more powerful state is allowed to send in infotraitors to warn the smaller party of incoming destruction. in fact, they are required to."
the teacher smiles. "exactly. see? big groups of people don't die in war anymore."
unbidden, my hand shoots into the air and i ask hotly, "but don't we all know that infotraitors are hardly ever used to warn the enemy? the convention only approved them so that the more powerful state could gather intelligence and perform assassinations without breaking the GB law! it's all about giving the favored, approved country the blind eye when it comes to ugly war."
but the teacher does not flash me her wide, white smile. instead she presses her lips together tightly, the careful pink turning white with the pressure. "of course not." the words are flat, and angry, and i can tell that if i'm not careful i'll get another letter sent to my parents. i stop talking, but glower down at the school NotetakerTM, on which i'm supposed to be taking notes.
we press on.
finally, after an hour of walking and talking and notes and brainwashing we get there. an hour of blurred images in front of my eyes, seared into my memory: of crumbled piles of wood, tired stones spilling all over the ground, foot-high brick walls all broken and in pieces at the top. for a moment i stop and run my hand over the old-style brick, from a time when they made them scarlet. it's still visible, even through the soft dust which gently coats everything, and when i touch my fingers to it, i feel the warmth of days in the sun, of the fire in the city. the stone is rough and pitted under my soft fingertips, so different from the smooth white substitute where i live. the corners are roughly sharp, bits of cement still stuck to the sides and reddish dust crumbling off at each movement. i place a crumbling bit in my pocket. then i am called along.
an hour. an hour of destroyed buildings. at first it was the office buildings. paper strewn about, flying all over in the wind, the little of it that wasn't incinerated. pens blasted into oblivion, black ink in puddles all over the smooth wood floors -- even a couple of pencils, dark steely graphite blending into the walls, cement in the same color.
then it was the homes, and i admit i had to wipe away tears once or twice. wouldn't you? upon seeing a small girl's toy animals, soft and velvety, with burns all over their creamy fur, scattered in the ruins of a once-brownstone building? upon seeing a sheet of music, black notes stark against the piece of paper floating in the wind? the piano in shattered pieces, ivory keys appearing like sun-bleached bones in the gray light. upon seeing a tuft of fur from a rabbit, a bright feather from a pet bird, next to an ashy splot? a shattered mirror, bright bits of silvery glass littering the ground like the glow of raindrops. along the way i keep gathering an item or two, taking up a piece of this and that to remember it.
finally, after an hour of walking and talking and notes and brainwashing we get there, the center of the circle of bombing. the town square. where the church once was. here there is no pretense anymore. there is no imagining that this town merely had an earthquake, a tsunami, a fire, even a nuclear accident, for i've seen pictures of mushroom clouds and this is not one. it is merely sand, and i finally understand what the soft dust coating our clothes and bodies is. it is the powder of the houses and buildings, the stones and cement that made them up completely disintegrated in the blast. there is nothing here, nothing.
the teacher calls out that we should all be taking notes because we'll be asked to write a poem on the futility of noncompliance when we get back onto the bus. a couple kids take out their NotetakersTM, but most of us just stare. stand there. trying to take in the magnitude of the disaster that was wrought -- that we wrought -- upon this place.
the teacher gives us ten minutes, and then we head out again through the other side of the city, where the bus driver will meet us at the edge to take us back to the classroom.
but this time, i noticed what i hadn't the first time: among the gray-brown of rock and boulder, the city of the gone, there are smears, here and there, of bright crimson red. blood. my stomach turns as the realization comes to me. i had suspected, but had no idea what it really meant: the infotraitors did not warn these people at all. they are not gone. they are dead. it is their houses, their paper, their lives incinerated. it is their culture exterminated. it is their lives gone for noncompliance. it is their world blasted into oblivion.
and it is their bodies removed so that school groups such as ours can wander the ruins "safely." if we strayed from the "path," i wonder, would the place seem so "clean?"
suddenly the jagged glass in the windows seems sharper, the edges of broken buildings clearer. the world appears dipped in a bloody shade of red, and i cannot stand the teacher's prattling on about the third continental convention of 749 anymore.
thankfully, we are at the bus. the driver motions us aboard, and forty-six kids scramble up the steps into the fast bus. i wait until the fray has died down and step towards the stairs, but i am stopped by the clawlike hand of the teacher on my arm.
"what do you have," she says, "in your pockets?"
i go for the standard response of a child: "nothing." but she glares at me with a steely tint in her eye, and i turn out my pockets. what follows is a cascade of colors, a jumble of objects which spread out on the ground around my feet, so when i look down i am given courage by the last remains of this ruin.
"did you take things from the ruin?" she squawks, for all the world like a buzzard or vulture, pecking around in the items on the ground, shaking her head as she discovers something truly "indecent." "leave this." she turns back towards the bus, hand motioning the driver to wait a moment, and moves her attention back to me. "leave this. get on the bus. and i expect to have your poem -- the rhetorical devices we've been studying in class, a proper rhyme scheme and metered structure -- at the end of the trip. i will have your poem."
i look again at the objects jumbled at my feet. a bleached piano key. a small piece of red-brown brick. a colorful green feather. a sun-yellow leaf. a soft gray stone. a sliver of glass. a metal strut. and a shard of a mirror, reflecting the calm blue of the sky in the midst of this total madness. all resting on the dust of the former city.
i look down at my feet, at the miniature version of the ruin scattered at my feet like a reminder. i look up at the teacher, point to the dead city, sparkling glass and dust of bones, and assert, "there. there's your poem."