Monday, March 26, 2012

A picnic

It was a job. I needed money to live on. I've never been political. I don't enjoy thinking about those things. I mostly think about my own life, or how I want it to be. I don't have any crazy ambitions. I just want a nice life.

I happen to live in a village near the border where life isn't as bad as it is in other places. It's pretty here. We grow most of our own food -- not a lot, but enough to keep us from resorting to violence or stealing from our neighbors. I hear it's desperate in other places. I hear this from friends and family who've traveled out of town, of course. I don't hear it through the media, which is controlled by the government and puts a nice gloss over everything.

They asked me to be a guard. It was an unpopular job; they needed people to do it, and they had to ask around. There was always the chance it could be dangerous, but that wasn't why people didn't apply. The post implied a political stance -- that you believed the border shouldn't be crossed, at least from our side. I don't care if people cross, but I was paid to care. I took the job because I needed money.

It wasn't so bad at first. For two weeks I stood near the edge of the border woods with two other guards and the spring weather was pleasant. No attempts were made. I wore a uniform. It was my first real job. I liked how I looked in the uniform, as if I were important, or a part of something important. My mother said I looked handsome but I know that she worried. She was proud because I was being a man.

I don't know why it was so quiet. Maybe that was just a fluke. We were just a small group of guards among many units in our village alone. We heard a story or two, but they never happened to us. Maybe people were afraid to try it. Maybe they trusted that their lives might get better on their own.

One day during the third week, when we had begun to relax, we met a group of painters from a city in the east. They had come to paint the church, whose steeple stands high above all the other buildings in our town. We didn't think to ask why they had come from so far away. It seemed impolite, and they were amiable. We liked them, but I think we also wanted to prove that we weren't the bad guys, that we're not political, that this was only a job. The ringleader was very funny and told good stories. We watched them set up for their task, watched them climb up onto the roof and survey what was around.

The leader, the funny one, asked us if we would do him a favor. He said they were having a barbecue for lunch but that they needed sticks for the fire. They weren't allowed in the woods beyond the village, but he asked if we could gather some wood for them. I was the one he asked. He invited us to join them. I was hungry like the rest of the country, and I asked him what they were having for lunch.

He said they were cooking a pig, and I could taste the juicy barbecue when he said it. He told me I could have the pig's feet, a delicacy here and of course my favorite part. I felt honored. I wanted to hear more of his stories. When he said "picnic," I could picture it, and I thought about what a perfect day it was. I looked forward to the break from the normal routine with some new, funny friends.

I know I should have questioned it, but I wanted life to be like that. For a moment I believed that it could.

I asked one of my colleagues to help me while one remained officially on guard but relaxed. I set down my rifle so I could fill my arms with wood. This gesture, laying down my weapon, was also meant to be symbolic, a sign of mutual trust. I've never been a suspicious person, even when it was my job to be.

Before I could take a step into the newly green woods, into the moss-blanketed clearings studded with small mushrooms and young wildflowers, I heard one of the painters run into the woods. It sounded like an Olympic athlete but it was someone running for his life. The lead painter, the funny one who had invited me to the picnic, picked up my rifle and pointed it at me. A slow part of my brain was still in a trance and thought it might be a game, like kids playing cowboys saying "Stick 'em up!" A part of me hadn't realized yet that the picnic wasn't going to happen.

The other painters had obtained my colleagues' weapons. They aimed our guns at us, lumped together like triplets, as if we were no longer individual people. Now it was them against us.

We put our hands on top of our heads and watched as they ran through the woods to relative freedom. The leader was the last to leave. He pointed my rifle at us but didn't shoot. It occurred to me that they didn't want to shoot us; they just wanted to escape. None of us wanted any of these roles. We all just wanted to have a nice life.

They left with our weapons. The three of us were fired that same day. When we talk among ourselves, we agree that we hope they made it to the other side. We liked them. I think that in another life, they would have been our friends.

But I still wonder why the funny one told me I could have the pig's feet. That detail doesn't seem to have been necessary to the plan. I would have gathered wood for him anyway, without him pretending to honor me, without him exciting me with a vivid picture of things that would never be. Of all that happened that day, this is the only part that feels like a betrayal.

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