In Aeternum

At night the soldiers slept, the prisoners prayed and the jungle shrieked with life.

Tomas retrieved his small burlap sack from its hastily dug hole and crept from the matted grass where he and the other boys slept. Worried one of them would awaken, trail him and horn in on his loot, he warily surveyed the faces he passed. The score of sleeping boys alternately cringed from their nightmares or lay comatose from exhaustion. Tomas hid behind a tree encircled by barbed wire and listened for boots and grunts. If the soldiers caught him, they’d kill him. Boys in rags stole; men in uniforms confiscated. Though he disobeyed the soldiers, “Tomas the Troublemaker” (as the orphanage’s mean nuns called him) understood why they did what they did. Birthing a new nation where no one was poor required everyone doing their duty. Those who did lived; those who didn’t died. Okay. Anyway, these dangerous forays into the jungle were training for that glorious day he’d be a soldier not a scavenger. But he was poor now.

Hearing nothing, he slipped through the barbed wire. Adrenaline coursed through limbs thinner than the diet of cold gruel the soldiers fed him and the foraged fruit the kind captain snuck him; and, too soon, sweat stung his sunken eyes, which had seen too much in his 13 years of what passed for life in this war-ravaged land. He slipped past a drunken sentry and trudged barefooted down the dirt and stone road leading from the camp through the jungle. Guttural howls pierced his ears then wafted off on the torpid wind. Tomas froze, reached into his burlap sack and covered his face with a threadbare red handkerchief to block the stench that rose with every step nearer the pit.

The smell made him queasy and he cursed himself. Would he ever be tough enough to be a real soldier in the Grand Army of the People that had stuck a gun in his back, a cause in his head and liberated him from exploitation? The army’s “Liberation Raid” was the most exciting thing that had happened in Tomas’ wretched river village since the cholera epidemic 10 years ago that killed the parents and sister he never knew. At first, he was frightened when the captain commanded the troops to burn his rickety orphanage and arrest the nuns who rapped his knuckles until they bled and he learned. Now, thanks to the captain, he’d learned what must be done to re-create a people despite themselves. Hadn’t the revolution already almost changed him from “nobody” to “somebody”? The revolution must move forward! … And he must, too.

He set his chin to the wind, plodded the final yards to the clearing, checked to see if another boy had followed him and slumped beneath a tree by the rim of the pit. Certain he’d uncover more valuable items than what already filled it, Tomas used a jagged stone for a table and emptied his burlap sack — two coins, a medal’s tattered ribbon, an empty pen, a broken belt buckle and a mismatched pair of socks. He envied how the disciplined soldiers like the captain could afford to ignore such riches. He’d share their virtue and their booty once the revolution’s “Popular Equality” raised him higher than the gates of the rich bastards’ mansions — temples to inequality built on the backs and blood of people like him! The manifesto the captain recited to them every morning was deathly accurate: in the face of the people’s suffering, the rich never looked anywhere but away. Tomas glared through the pit’s steamy mists.