To drink from the stream by the wayside

To Drink from the Stream by the Wayside
By Helen Lemus
We had to walk. There were three of us left. Aldo, Ray and I were walking together through the night. Everywhere we looked, we saw signs of our defeat, the defeat of our supposedly invincible force. God had not been with us. We had screwed up. We were no longer pious. At least, that’s what I believed. Ray just thought that we had become complacent, weak or we had just been bleary eyed from too much hashish.
There it was a flag of our thrown to the ground while one of theirs had been hoisted up. That was a common sight on tonight’s walk. We were running back to base. The group that had been sent out had been decimated. We were the only ones left. Ray was in bad shape. His body was weighing between us. I carried him on the right while Aldo was on his left. It was a painful step at a time.
I wondered what would happen if we fell. Would we be able to get back up? Sometimes, Ray would try to lay down, but we wouldn’t let him. We just kept pushing. We had to get to base before sunrise. The heat would keep us from walking during the day, and there was precious little cover. There were only endless streets, shelled out buildings and the dead. Here and there, a fire would burn, embers glittering in the night.
It was about a quarter after three when we passed a fountain. Aldo reached in and said something about kings drinking from the waters by the wayside. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then, Ray just fell to the ground between us. Ray, Aldo, and I had been inseparable since our first day in the army. When he fell, I just knew that he was dead. I fell to the ground after him and lay down next to him. I didn’t want to get up. A physical part of me, a part next to my chest along my arm seemed to be torn away from me. In the night, I saw his clean face as I had seen him the first day we met.
“You have to pick yourself up,” he had said in the night as if he were still alive. “I will always be with you, and the bonds of friendship are not severed in death for love is forever. Go on.”
“I can’t. You’re my friend, Ray,” I replied.
His face disappeared. It was just Aldo and I.
“He’s dead,” said Aldo.
“I know. We have to bury him and go on.”
“No way, bro. We can’t just leave Ray here to rot. It’s Ray, man. It’s Ray.”
“Okay,” said my mouth. I wanted to tell Aldo what I had seen, what I had heard, but it was impossible for me. I did not want to fight anymore.
We picked up ray between us and grabbed him. Aldo held his feet as he pulled him. I held Ray under the arms. We carried him. It was friendship.
The sun rose, and its warmth was on my face. Apparently, I had fallen asleep. Aldo lay next to me. Ray was there. The first thing that I saw above me was the gate. It was the base. We had arrived, together. Ray’s eyes were open, still. I tired to close them but it wasn’t possible. The sun was on his eyeballs , but they weren’t tearing up or blinking. That was it for Ray.
I shook Aldo awake and we got up without a word. He wiped the eye snot from his lids, and we just resumed our walk. We picked up Ray and followed the fence until we arrived at the gate. Two guards were stationed there. They saw our uniforms. I showed them our tags and papers. All that was Ray, Aldo and I. They waved us and called a jeep for us. We sat in the back of the shack waiting. There was wamth, the smell of coffee and cinnamon. Without Ray…
In the distance, I heard the shells. Yes. We had made it, but they had followed. At least, they were trying to follow. Aldo looked green. He stopped and stepped outside. He threw up in the snow. Yellow in a pool of white snow. Why did I look? It was perverse curiosity. It turned out that the stream had been poisoned. Aldo died two days later. I was the only one left. I delivered the flags, folded neatly in their wooden containers along with the General’s letters to their wives and mothers.

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