M had stepped on it.
That faint sound had given him a moment of reflection to stop himself from lifting his foot from the ground, but the landmine was now primed.
Incredibly, it takes such an event for a man to suddenly feel alive.
M was keenly aware life was now over, but then again, had not every second of his life up to this point also been leading up to death? Perhaps, he thought to himself, he had never considered the possibility that he would die. This was almost comic, considering that he was a soldier in this bitter conflict that had been going on for the last few years. Still, he had never actually been involved in any action and had never even laid eyes on the enemy. They were spoken about often, but they took this abstract form, an excuse for everything that was wrong with the world.
M had always been scared of being imprisoned, especially in extended solitary confinement, and yet, here he was, confined to the outside world. He felt he was stuck in freedom.
He began to consider his situation.
He could not move his foot; that much was clear to him. However, he still had full liberty of his head, eyes, nose, tongue, shoulders, arms, and even limited freedom of his free leg and foot.
More importantly, he still had the freedom of thought.
This was something, he noted, that others give away either out of laziness or in return for external rewards. And so he started to use this freedom of thought to think about how his situation could be worse.
Firstly, he could have detonated the mine right away and either died instantly or be dying in the vicinity of the explosion. M wondered if a sudden death would be better. But, on the other hand, he immensely enjoyed the fact that he had time to calmly leave the world and have his last thoughts. He guessed he could keep standing on this mine for the better part of one or two days before he would pass out due to exhaustion.
The sudden death has the advantage of no psychological pain. Still, M compared the initial shock of realizing that he had stepped on the mine to the fact that he had gained at least one more day of life.
It felt like a worthwhile tradeoff.
So clearly, he wasn’t in the worst possible situation. Additionally, he had not stood on the landmine with his dominant leg, which made the entire affair much easier. He guessed that he would prefer the freedom of his dominant side, but perhaps it didn’t really make much if any, difference.
In fact, he wondered if anything made a difference anymore. However, he had food in his bag. While he felt there was little point in eating, it was the time to eat, and so he decided to live the remainder of his short life as normally as possible and so ate at the correct time.
He had always found rations to be bland, but this last meal he told himself would be different. He was going to be aware of every mouthful. He was going to chew his food slowly, savoring every crumb, getting every last human experience possible in his outdoor prison.
Actually, the ration still tasted bland, but he did appreciate it more than usual. He began to think about what he would have liked to have had as a last meal. But, then, his mind wandered towards how he imagined he would have died had he not essentially ended his life already earlier in the day. He had vague visions of old age, a bed, and being surrounded by familiar faces. Or, perhaps traveling alone in a great wilderness and then letting himself succumb to the elements.
Not so far off from what he was doing now then.
As M was contemplating whether to lift his foot voluntarily instead of waiting for the inevitable to happen, he heard a noise. Suddenly he was face to face with the infamous enemy. A six-man patrol had found him, weapons raised and ready to finish him, while his own gun was on the floor next to him.
M found it funny, and his laughter is probably what stopped them from killing him right there and then. Incredibly, the landmine had made his greatest fear – the enemy – something to be laughed at. They had no power over him because he had nothing left that they could take from him.
The patrol group quickly understood the situation, swiftly kicked his weapon out of reach. They proceeded to sit around him but minding to keep their distance as if he was a sick man with a highly contagious disease. M was dead, and they knew it, and he could see that they didn’t want to stay near him, in case his luck, or lack of it, would pass on to them.
They spoke in their strange foreign tongue, harsh sounds left and right. Without knowing their language, M could sense that there were deciding what to do with him. He could imagine the arguments being put forwards for leaving him or taking a mercy shot at him from a distance.
They eventually gave him something to smoke and some water and went on their way.
M found it incredible that his life had been saved by his predicament. However, an astute observer may come to the conclusion that he had no life left to save. Regardless, a situation that would have ended with him mortally wounded by multiple gunshots turned into water and cigarettes.
M didn’t even smoke, but then again, he was hardly going to have time to face the consequences, and so he lit a cigarette. He coughed, and his foot almost slipped off the landmine, but he retained his balance and had another furtive puff.
He hadn’t felt so alive for years.
M began to have a distinct feeling that he didn’t matter.
He knew this before, but now the feeling was clear as if he had put on glasses for the first time in his life. He understood how he would become another statistic, no even worse, simply a part of a statistic, to be filed away in the history books. He imagined bored school children in fifty years memorizing the number of dead on each side. He would be part of that number, that meaningless number that hides the true horrors of war and the individual suffering of each digit. We are all going to die, but the question is how.
We are all going to die, but the question is how.
He envisioned how, right now, there were countless numbers of people enjoying life, not even aware that he was stuck in the middle of nowhere. He was on his own, far away from home, and in such a difficult situation. Not even the people on the other side, the ones who are paid and trained and brainwashed to want to hate and kill him, will put him out of his misery.
He began to have an immense sense of regret in not yet having had a child. This meant that this was the end of the line for his family, as he was an only child. He wondered if his mother or father would be more disappointed about this fact than his death when he was eventually reported Missing in Action. They would only be remains spread around here and there of him, and so he doubted that they would find even those before Mother Nature came to clean up after his mess.
He wondered if the fact that he didn’t have a biological continuance meant he was indeed going to be meaningless. What was the point of even being born, growing up, struggling through adolescence, growing into a young man, studying, having girlfriends, getting drunk, having birthday parties, if it was all going to end like this?
His regrets were many, starting with that last step he had taken, but he couldn’t blame himself too much for that. The engineer who had planted the landmine had done a fine job; it was expertly hidden under a subtle layer of mud.
M began to question how society had gone so far the wrong way. There are organizations solely dedicated to manufacturing such diabolical machines and individuals who study the assembly, transportation, and safe installation of them.
He personally had never had any problems with the other side. He hadn’t even met them until today. He wondered if he had met those six men in his hometown. If they spoke his language, he might have had an agreeable conversation and even bought them a drink. Still, the uniforms they wear set them apart as if there was an impassable ocean between where he stood and where they stood.
M tried to scrape any knowledge he had about landmines from his brain. Still, he began to worry that he really had started to die because he found it challenging to retrieve much information. Then, he remembered his instructor telling him that there was a landmine for every fifty or so people globally and that they can stay active for decades. He hoped that landmines were engineered like everything else: cheaply, with planned obsolescence in mind.
He hoped that landmines were engineered like everything else: cheaply, with planned obsolescence in mind. He hoped that the cancerous consumerism that had devoured society whole had spread into every corner. Perhaps, even here, in a remote patch of forest, the forces of capitalism and cost cuttings were at work.
He could only hope that the enemy had the same underlining thought system as his society.
This made M laugh – what if the landmine wasn’t even planted by his enemy? What if it was a remnant of a previous war, any of the ones that have ravaged the region in the last fifty years? This made him feel absurd. He was going to die a casualty of a war that had started and ended before he was even born, a war whose reasons were as clear as the mud he was standing on.
But perhaps, just perhaps, the landmine might not be functioning. He will lift up his foot, and nothing will happen. He will just wander back as if nothing had happened and explain his absence. The chances that he would be found if he stayed here were remote; nobody would come looking for him.
M realized that because there was a slight chance that he wouldn’t die, this meant that, technically, he wasn’t a dead man quite yet, but he was somewhere in between life and death. He was in the same state as Schrodinger’s cat. Living in this state wasn’t an easy task; it had been the most formidable challenge of his life so far. Then, for some reason, a saying by some old Chinese master he read somewhere came to his mind:
Every journey begins with a single step.
The irony wasn’t lost on M, but he had indeed started a new part of his life with a single step, and most probably his final one. However, he also understood that every step he had ever taken, every decision he made or not made, was equally fateful. The noise in the bushes that had distracted him a few hours before his fatal step had sealed his fate. Otherwise, he may not have trodden on this very patch of land. Or it could have been his decision to join the armed forces. He began to realize that he could keep going back all the way to his birth and then also beyond, to the decisions taken by his ancestors and the instinctual reactions of his animal ancestors and the creation of the stars.
He began to understand the inevitability of his predicament because the past cannot be changed, and we hardly manage to live in the present.
As his death approached, M acknowledged that it can’t be that bad. The vast majority of humans who have ever lived have died. So have his favorite musicians, authors, painters, and artists.
They had all faced and conquered death.
As he could feel the close of his life arriving, M began to feel comforted. He was one of the lucky ones. One of those who had the chance to stop and think, to say goodbye to this world, and be in control right up to the end. That suited M. The idea of suddenly disappearing without being able to clear his thoughts beforehand was uncomfortable to him, and he could think of many worse ways to die.
In the end, M decided that he was going to make his last action a conscious one and waited a few hours until he managed to calm himself down and accept his fate.
M lifted his foot.