I physically could not remember the last time I heard my name spoken out loud. Years ago probably. It felt like years. Maybe its months. I have no concept of time anymore.
The guards screamed us to go. It was time to work. I pulled myself off the floor to standing, my bones protesting wildly as I went; moaning, and cracking in a way I was far too used to. I took my time. A few extra seconds could make all the difference to your energy later in the day. I then exited the ramshackle hut where we were sometimes allowed to have lunch, and begrudgingly began to follow the other prisoners.
It occurred to me, as I slowly starting trudging my way over to the fields, that my name would soon be lost. I could barely recall it on demand anymore. As I thought this my mind wandered briefly as my feet enjoyed a short respite; I was now moving through the mud on the edge of the field. Mud was very much preferable on the bare foot to gravel. Its softness felt almost divine. Where was I? Oh yes. Names.
How many of my fellow prisoners could remember their names I wonder? As we reached our previous posts, and I picked up the nearest machete, I looked upon the backs and faces of the people around me. Black, White, Young, Old. So many different people. Who were they now but one mass of degradation? One unit of inferior being. Like a herd of cattle. Did names even matter anymore? Who bothers to name their cattle?
Putin would not let prisoners keep their Western names. He was making a point against liberal Western democracy; he felt our names reflected the inherent looseness, and freedom, of an all too liberal attitude to the political control of human life. Politics is about control, not democracy, says Putin. Our liberal attitude towards a person’s background, immigration issues, and modern society, is all reflected in our Western names. So. We were given numbers instead.
It didn’t matter anyway. Why would we need a name?
Despite the sweat on my brow I was cold. The wind was strong and it whipped straight through my now frail frame in a cruel manner. The more tall grass we cut the more accessible we were to its bite. I used to dream that the British-American United Front Army would come and, like the wind, sweep me away to my home in Yorkshire. Safe and sound, like none of this had happened. Settled under a duvet with a cup of tea, waiting for Sunday dinner to be cooked; a beautiful roast chicken and massive Yorkshire puddings. But now I knew different. I knew that dreams were useless. Hope was as futile as a genie’s lamp, and wind was definitely not friendly. It was cold, and harsh, and it had the ability to worsen any of our already dire days ten fold.
To illustrate this one had only to look at the poor boy who was working in the line ahead of me. His small body was fighting against being swept aside by the brutal force of the winds, whilst he tried to physically carry on with his back-breaking work. Should he get behind he knew, as did I, that he would be severely punished.
Hours slowly went by unnoticed as we toiled on through the undergrowth. We held no concept of time, no hope of respite, no chance of relief. Our only opportunity to escape this daily labour would be death, but the hope of that coming without pain would be hope without avail. Never-mind the undeniable fact that to hope for death is simply beyond my reach. I just cannot bring myself to it. Surely deep scars, physical and mental, and pain beyond belief on a daily basis would be enough to allow such a thought?
Apparently not. My mind was like Pandora’s box… no matter how much despair it contained there remained, hidden underneath the mass of fizzled brain cells and tired memories, a tiny little spark of actual possibility. Although consciously I had given up there was always that deep lying, ridiculously stubborn, contradiction somewhere in my mind telling me to keep going. To put one foot in front of another. To remember that I was in fact alive.
As if to encourage this thought, the welcome sight of the sun dipping towards the horizon caused the sky to turn a beautiful pinky-orange colour; just for a transient moment I looked to the sky in wonder. That was beauty. It was here. It still exists.
We didn’t have time to stand and ponder the sight though, as it was time to turn in our tools and return to the huts. Giving us machetes was not as dangerous as you may think. We were far too tired to be able to turn them effectively on our captors, and even if we had the energy it would be wasted against a machine gun. We could commit suicide. People have. The guards will shoot your arm off if they see you try though, and should they succeed, you will still be made to work. It was a damn risky business all in all, and not something I wanted to go all in on.
Once they were all chucked in the basket, and could all be accounted for, we were given the nod to start back for the night.
The walk was relatively short. We could not speak, or look at one another. We could just trudge. Despite this, I could see ahead that the older woman in our section was struggling. Today must have done her in. She was stumbling as she went, and I caught sight of our guard, who was now moving closer to her position in the line. Christ. He had his gun in one hand, raised to strike. Before he got the chance though she had collapsed, halting the progress of this line. The other line kept going. Perhaps they hadn’t even noticed, or perhaps they knew better than to notice. We waited behind her whilst the guard grabbed her and angrily pulled her to her feet, with his other hand he struck her heavily with the side of his gun.
He was shoving her from behind, forcing her to move. I flicked my eyes to the ground as he turned to look at the rest of us, checking we weren’t doing anything untoward. I wondered what her name was. I didn’t even know her nationality. I had never heard her speak! She must have had a home. Children, a husband, grandchildren. All of whom would know her name. Remember it with love and longing, should they be safe.
I was beginning to think that to hang on to my name was fruitless. What good could it do? Would it not just take unnecessary exertion to keep it alive and vivid in my brain?
Perhaps my name was in fact that little spark at the bottom of my box-like mind telling me to hold on. It was the final remnants of my real identity, refusing to be swept away by despair. Putin was right to associate it with freedom. It was a symbol of my true self, and holding it in my mind meant that I was still there, I was still present in my own mind. Somewhere I was there. He could not take that from me either. It was there, and should I need it again, I could bring it forth. Triumphantly, I could recall it, and like a slap to his face I could reclaim my identity. Look! I could tell him; Look how you haven’t broken me!
For now though I had to sleep. We were back at our huts and bed-time beckoned. As I fell to my mat on the dirty, dusty floor, I took a rare chance to sling a disallowed smile at the old woman, whose mat lay nearby my own. It was small, and barely visible. But in her eyes, as she caught it, I saw a deep reflection. In that instant I saw a person, a name, a life.
I saw hope.
Resilient, strong, and beautiful.
This was an entry to the weekly writing challenge. It is evidently complete fiction; however, there are still over 21 million people living in slavery. More than all put together across the entire time slavery was legal. So please, give these people a thought!