Based on a story that was told to me as true. An English officer in the Anglo-Boer War is on a mission of mercy in time for Christmas.
In all my life, I had never felt this inadequate. I followed the hard-packed pathway between fluttering canvas tents by rote. Even now, when the full moon only served to deepen the shadows cast by thousands of tents.
This camp was a stain on the dry winter surroundings. A shadowy blot of sin and death no amount of moonlight could soften.
A woman wept nearby. Another mother who’d lost a child. Definitely not the only one I’d be hearing on the way to my destination. I clenched my jaw and kept walking, hoping to look resolute enough for any officers spotting me to assume I was supposed to be here.
Today would be the day my family back in London would be hunting for a tree, now all the rage thanks to Prince Albert. My little sister would be making decorations and thinking of me, her dear brother missing her and wishing he was anywhere but this god-forsaken piece of earth on the tip of Africa.
I had been seduced into coming by a sense of adventure and the dream of patriotism. Of claiming land that we were destined to belong to us. It should have been easy. Our glorious empire never saw a sunset because we knew how to get what we wanted, and were willing to fight for what we had deemed to be ours.
We should have been satisfied with what we’d had. But then, the Dutch farmers who had decided to risk their lives move into the interior to escape our rule… They found gold.
Gold that we needed.
Gold that we were going to have even if it came to war.
Easy enough. And yet, the war had gone wrong. So wrong that it was deemed necessary to burn farms and pack non-combatting citizens into this camp and others like it. To turn it into a war of attrition we were sure to win.
But the damage… The damage…
I glanced around me, trying to make my gaze penetrate the tomblike shadows. Another woman wailed and I shivered. So much misery. And there was nothing I could do about it.
All I had was a canteen filled with curds. It wasn’t even sweetened.
I hunched my shoulders forward as I turned to the left, following the footpath to the tent that was my destination. Inside was a little girl. Hanna was her name. The first time I saw her, I was writing names into the record book.
Like a butcher records lambs to the slaughter. I nearly cried out when I looked up and found her before me. She looked so much like my sister. The same flaxen hair. The same expressive blue eyes.
Seeing there shook me. It woke me to what we were doing. We’d burned her house down to force her to come here and live in tents. At the start, that was the worst I thought we’d subject them to. But then the diseases came and the rations dwindled.
And now Hanna was going to die. Maybe it would be the measles ravaging her, or maybe the steady onset of starvation. And all I had to help… A stupid canteen filled with stupid, unsweetened curds.
I stopped in front of her tent. A timidness gripped me. What was I doing? I had no right to intrude on this family’s despair. I was part of the cause.
Yet my feet remained rooted where I stood. I couldn’t leave. Not without giving this ridiculously small thing. It was all I had to give, and I wanted to give it to Hanna.
The lump in my throat grew with every step forward I took. Maybe I wouldn’t give the canteen to them personally. Maybe I should simply leave it before the tent’s entrance and not look back. Yes, yes I could do that.
But someone lit a lamp inside, barely diluting the shadows. Then she stood right where I’d planned to place the canteen, peering at me. She probably couldn’t make out who I was. Only that she hated me.
When I’d written her name in the records, she was a strong, sturdy woman with pride in her posture. Now, only the stiff back remained. Her hair had been shorn to protect against lice, but she stood with a queen’s dignity. She’d break before she bent to our will, but I could see the cracks, the grooves around her mouth.
“What?” she demanded.
Now or never. I took a few steps forward and held up the canteen. “I…” My throat ached from the effort, but I cleared it and tried again. “I heard you have a sick little girl.”
She took the canteen and opened the contents, sniffing it.
“I know it’s not much.” I held my tongue, bracing to the impact, in case she decided to throw the canteen at me.
Instead, she carefully twisted the cap on once more.
And burst into tears.
She flew into my arms, hugging me tight, the canteen’s hard edges biting into my shoulder as she embraced me. “Dankie,” she said. “Dankie.”
It was nothing. Curds without a thing to sweeten it, but one would think I had brought her God’s own treasures for Christmas. Tears stinging my ears, I backed away from her so she could return to her daughter.
Into the shadows I went, furtively making it to my own tent, hoping she wouldn’t recognize me in the morning.
It was a stupid, stupid gift, after all.
Misha Gerrick has been creating stories long before she could write and is currently going after her dream of making a living as a writer.
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