Elizabeth Kate Switaj
Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Blip Magazine, The Lorelei Signal, and Expanded Horizons. Her first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press, and she has a pamphlet, Warburg’s Tincture of Sonnets, forthcoming from Like This Press in 2013. She is currently the Assistant Managing Editor of Irish Pages: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and a Contributing Editor to Poets’ Quarterly. For more information visit http://www.elizabethkateswitaj.net.
We were lucky to make it into the line where soldiers walked the road–foreign soldiers in crisp clean blue, not the soldiers of our country in torn camouflage as dusty as the clothes the rest of us wore. Our soldiers weren’t soldiers anymore. After months without paychecks, they had become the reason you had to be lucky to make it this far. No, no one here was going to hold a pistol to your head and rape you and shoot you anyway. Don’t you ever be a good girl – the last man who sold me gas had said.
–Wasn’t planning to start. Mama always said an apocalypse is no time to convert. I don’t think she meant it this way, but she’s dead.
He was young, redheaded, and I liked his laugh, so I invited him to come with us.
– No, he said, some of us still have to take care of our mothers.
I could have argued with him. The shelves in the shop were empty. His case seemed hopeless unless the currency he was still accepting became worth something again. But who was I to take away his hope? And Carla was already crushing the horn.
We had to abandon the car her mother bought her for her sixteenth birthday. Everyone in line for the crossing had to wait on foot. We didn’t know how long it would take, so we carried our water jugs and filled our backpacks with as many granola bars and canned goods as we could. And we waited. We tried to ask a few of the soldiers how far from the border we were, but they ignored us. The people in front of us shrugged or whispered that they didn’t know anything. I tried to introduce myself to the sandy-haired man in front of me. He shook his head when I asked him his name. At first I thought it was because I’m black, and maybe it was, in part, but after a few days I realized that no one in that line was talking. Not any of the people in front of me who never seemed to move and not any of the people behind me who just kept coming until I couldn’t see the end of the line anymore. Eventually Carla stopped responding when I pointed out a funny cloud or a few blades of grass. Eventually I, too, stopped talking.
I started keeping track of the days by drawing tally marks in the dirt. Ten days later, it began to rain. At first people smiled and set up containers to catch the water. Then the floods came. Still, no one left the line. The water reached up to my hips before it stopped coming, and I’m a tall woman, even in tennis shoes. It went down a bit every day after that; now only my knees are covered.
People have started dying, but nobody wants to lose their place. I see bodies floating away on the current, and still the line isn’t moving ahead. Even so, I know that one way or another, it will soon be my turn to cross.