The Boy

A short story

An illustration of a boy
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

The trees are living things. The grass, the clumps of ragwort, the hard full ground. All of it alive. In the sky an airplane is on its side, turning east with its belly up, its engines whining, a rumble in its wake that is felt in the gut, an additional tremble in the limbs. They are all frightened.

There are eight men. And the boy. Nine of them. There are six soldiers. The soldiers are outnumbered, and the men can count. But they can also count the guns, and although at least three of the soldiers are drunk, and one seems worse than drunk, another two are sharp and steady, with eyes that flit and rest, flit and rest, and the men know that it would be madness, it would be impossible, it would be suicide.

They are under the trees, near the edge of the meadow. They had been driven for a while, not for long, not far from the place they had been. They had stopped by the side of the road and had been ordered out of the vehicle, the truck, and they had been made to leave the road then, to leave the road that went back to what they knew. Other soldiers had stayed there, with the truck. Two had stayed. So they must have thought, the soldiers, that six were enough. That six could herd, could guard, eight others. Nine. And if the soldiers thought that, then how could the men think that it was a mistake? That they stood a chance? Who were the professionals here?

They had climbed a hill through brambles and rubbish to a wide, green meadow, and they had walked across, the soldiers at their backs, directing them. Left. Left more. There. To that line of trees. The meadow was empty, a faded green, perhaps a stream to their right as they crossed, in the distance, where the land seemed to dip and disappear. The sun had shone on them and they had talked to the boy, inasmuch as they could. Inasmuch as they could find in themselves something to say to him. Something comforting, distracting. Inasmuch as the soldiers would let them talk at all. Shut up. You. Shut up.  

There had been no airplanes as they crossed the field. The men had looked for them but they did not come; they were not there. Watch where you’re going. What could they have done anyway? The senior soldier, the one in charge, he was the most nervous. He did not seem drunk, but he was not sober. He was sweating and his eyes were bloodshot and he squinted at the light and watched the sky, and he stopped every few meters to look toward the top of the meadow where perhaps there was a stream, and he seemed to want them to both move faster and never arrive.

Now, though, they are in the trees. And one of the soldiers has gone ahead. They wait. The men all sit on the ground. And the soldiers sit or squat on the ground. Only the boy stands, until a soldier shouts at him, and he squats down, then sits, carefully, not unfolding his arms, which the men can see are kept crossed over his chest because he wants to stop shaking, and he cannot.

He is about, what, 8 years old. He was suddenly in their midst. They were moved from one vehicle to another, three of them, four of them, and then they were with these other men whom they did not know, and the boy. And both sets of men thought that the boy was with the others. Who is the boy? Your boy? No, is he not yours? Did he not come with you? And realizing then that none of them knew who he was. And the boy would not speak. What’s your name, kid? You’ll be all right. What’s your name? Who were you with? But he said nothing, and when they tried to ask the soldiers, the soldiers shouted at them to shut up. And yet they felt somehow that the presence of the boy changed everything. That his presence meant that they would not be killed. Everything was heading in that direction. But then there was this boy. Like a form that had been incorrectly filled in. An administrative error. Which would mean eventually that the soldiers would scratch their heads, blow out their cheeks, complain that some higher-up had made a mess, that they’d have to go back, have to take them all back, that this was wrong, that you can’t murder the men in front of the boy. And that you cannot murder the boy.

The youngest of the soldiers scares the men the most. He is drunk. He carries a flask and sips from it, cradling his gun, staring at them while he does so. He is skinny. His head and his arms jerk as if there is some stiffness in his body, which might be fear or anger. It is probably fear. The men are managing their fear. Their minds are working and their eyes dart but they are trying very hard not to make any movements that are not ponderous, that do not seem entirely unthreatening. They are trying to appear lazy, slow. Their minds have never worked harder; their bodies are scared.

Or perhaps the senior soldier scares them the most. He is looking into the woods where the soldier went ahead. He squats, leaning on his gun, looking off through the trees. He is middle-aged, ordinary-looking. The men wonder if they can talk to him, reason with him. What are you doing? How can you do this? How can this be right? They think that if they can form a good argument, something that appeals to him as a man, perhaps as a father, or as a brother, or as … at least as a man, that he will be persuaded. Run, go, fend for yourselves, he will tell them, and tell them that if they are caught, they will be shot. But they know that he is a professional. He looks away from them. He looks ahead. He squats, and his back is to them and he is paid a wage and he is patriotic and does his duty and is not a coward, not a traitor, not a sentimentalist, not any of those things that the other soldiers might think of him if he let them go. The men form their arguments. But they wait.

The youngest soldier shuffles closer to one of his comrades and mutters. He is agitated. He seems to be asking where the other soldier—the one who went ahead—has got to. The senior soldier, without turning around, tells him to shut up.

And what if they are wrong, the men? What if they are not going to be shot? The boy is there. The sun. A meadow. There is a stream just out of sight. Who would shoot them? The young drunken soldier who is as scared as them? The ordinary middle-aged man? Who would do that? They are being taken to another place. As prisoners. They are being moved. That must be it. They are valuable. They can be traded.

And if they are wrong, and even if they are right, why scare the boy more by pleading for their lives? Why? Why do that?

The boy looks at no one. He looks at the ground. The men think that maybe he is small enough, nimble enough, perhaps the trees are dense enough, maybe if he runs he will get away, dodging his way through the forest, through the woods, running, ducking, maybe he can make it. But none of them knows how to say this to him. None of them knows how to make him understand that he might try. Even if they could say it to him, they are scared that he would still be shot, shot as he ran, and that they, then, they would be responsible. And perhaps they would be led to another place, or back to the truck, back to the town, released, and the boy would be dead.

These thoughts are like the heat. They are dense and thorough and they come but do not go. Fear is the slowest use of time, the largest part of death. It is a trap, like a leg trap, a claw, one of those, where you cannot move and suddenly the time you have left is all the time that is left in the universe.

They do not know what he is thinking. The boy. Sometimes he will glance at one of the men, or at one of the soldiers. Very quickly. It is possible to see his eyes picking out the position of everyone around him, picking out the guns, picking out the trees, the sky, in tiny darting glances, mapping out his situation, the fear on his face at times looking to the men like it might in fact be courage, determination, cunning. Maybe he is thinking about running. But he is so tense. Maybe that is good. Maybe he is like a spring. But he is shaking so much. Maybe that is anger.

They try to talk to him. They do not know what to say. The soldiers tell them to shut up.

There is a shout nearby and the soldiers throw themselves down flat, and the men are doing the same when there is another shout, and the soldiers shout back, and sit back up and put their guns up again and laugh. Another group of soldiers passes close by. There are about 10 of them. One of them is the soldier who had gone ahead. He comes back. The boy has started to cry, the men notice. He is silent, but his face is wet and his nose is messy and his shoulders rise and fall. The passing soldiers are shouting, complaining about the heat. They shout about shovels and digging. They shout something about clothes. They are, some of them, carrying sacks. Black plastic sacks. They become quieter and then they disappear.

The men speak to the boy. The soldiers shout at them. They make a decision, the men. They decide to continue to speak to the boy. He is crying, gasping for breath; he is as tense as a dry twig and they are afraid he might snap and turn to dust, so they speak to him. Hey, kid. You like playing? You like hide-and-seek games? What sort of games do you like? You like “I spy” games? ​The youngest soldier stands suddenly and walks toward the boy but the senior soldier shouts something and he stops. Let them talk. ​He stops, the youngest soldier. On his face is a terrible sort of hatred for the boy, and for the men, and for the senior soldier, and for himself. He wants nothing more than to raise his rifle and shoot the boy, or raise it and use the butt to hit the boy and hit him again, and again, not only until the boy is dead—the boy will die on the second blow—but until his anger is dead, and then until he has the courage to stop, or until exhaustion stops him. But he stands; he stares at the boy. He stares at the men. He turns and goes back and sits down again.

What games do you like? I have a son; when he was your age, we used to try to count the trees in the woods when we went walking. Do you count trees? It’s hard to do. It’s difficult. You begin, and you count, but there are so many, and then you wonder, Have I counted that one already? Have I counted that one? Or this other game. Don’t look at your shoe. And now I ask youwhat color is your shoe? What color are the laces? What color are the things at the side? The stripes. How many holes are there for the laces? You’re not allowed to look. You have to remember.

They think, the men, that the senior soldier will hear them, listen to them. That he will hear about their lives, hear the sort of men they are, and that it will go in their favor. And they think that they are perhaps persuading him, indirectly.

They do not crowd the boy with their voices. They take turns. They try to gauge if one voice works any better than another. The boy begins to look at whoever is speaking. That is progress, they think. That is something. But he doesn’t speak. Perhaps he cannot. Or perhaps he is foreign? Who knows? But they make their voices gentle. Even the men who do not have voices that are accustomed to children. They make their eyes soft, their faces kindly; they try, all of them, they try to calm him.

They watch, too, the back of the senior soldier. They look for a change. They look for a softening in the muscles of his back. Perhaps if they mention again their own sons? Their own daughters? Perhaps. They watch. The boy, his face; the senior soldier, his back.

They try to think of games. Some of them, in remembering games, in seeing the boy’s eyes look directly into theirs, remember the children that they played them with, and this brings them distress and the heat is thick even in the forest, as if another forest. The woods. They remember their own children. Some of them feel that they will never see their own children again. Some of them feel that they certainly will, that they certainly will, that life continues until it stops, that where there’s life … They look at the boy, some of the men, and he looks back at them, and they see their own children. Or they see their nephews, their nieces, their grandchildren, the children of their friends, their neighbors, or they see themselves, the children they were; they see in the boy the boy that they remember. And as the soldiers stir and stand and call, they want, more than anything else, for the boy to live, even if they don’t. That is all.

Some of the soldiers that passed by have come back. Why? Why have they done that? Four of them have come back. Now the men are outnumbered. They could have. They could have tried. But not now. Perhaps if they had tried, the boy might have gotten away. In the confusion. The boy. But now. If they.

There are too many possibilities.

He might have lived. He might yet. They will die. But they might not. Maybe they have got it all wrong. Everything is not becoming smaller. Everything is becoming bigger. More complicated. They have lost their chance. Haven’t they? The chance they might have taken when things were simpler, when life was simpler, but the boy at least has stopped crying. He has said nothing. But he looks at the men now; he looks into their eyes. He is stiller. He seems a little calmer. So perhaps.

The soldiers stand, shout at them, get them to stand up, and the men’s thoughts become a concentration on nothing, a sort of void, but it is not that; it is simply that time has started to fail for them now. They all stand. They put a hand on the boy’s shoulder as he too stands, and they can feel the tremble in him like music in the distance, like something coming, but there is nothing coming, and the soldiers tell them to walk, to move, to walk on, go further in, go on​.

And they do. And the trees come with them, and crowd in on them, and then lose interest and thin out, and they come to a clearing where there is a sharp smell as if of meat or dung or metal and the heat is precise, and they stop and see ahead a ditch or a hole in the ground and they know that they are, they are, they are where. And they look at the boy and he looks now only at them. As if in faces he can save something. As if in their eyes he can see that he is still living, and that they are still living, and that as long as he has faces to look at and faces are looking at him … maybe that’s what he is thinking; the men don’t know.

They should speak up now. It is hopeless now. They clear their throats.

The soldiers tell them to strip. What? Why? The men protest. Why? Everything? Why? But the soldiers just shout at them. Take off your clothes, all of your clothes, throw them here, put them here. ​One of the soldiers picks up their clothes, puts them in some bags. The clothes are all mixed up. The soldier doesn’t keep them separate. So how? So how will they get them back? How will that happen? They will be all mixed up. They will have to stand naked sorting through their clothes. Is this your shirt? Are these your boxer shorts? The small clothes. The men look at their shirts, their trousers, their underpants and socks and shoes being mixed up, being separated, combined with another man’s clothes, going into different bags. They follow their own clothes with their eyes, but they are lost.

They will be shot now, they know. They stand with their hands in front of their genitals. As if dignity is simple. They shiver in the heat. The boy looks smaller still, his legs as thin as grass, his shoulders square but tiny, like a square of cloth, like skin. But perhaps they will be spared. They have heard of fake executions. Of last-minute reprieves. They have heard of Dostoyevsky; they have read great literature; they have loved people; they have memories, homes; they have friends and lovers and enemies, but not enemies like these, but they have memories, all these memories, and they feel they should think of their lives. But maybe they will be saved. Maybe they will escape.

The boy is crying again. The soldiers want them to line up. Over there. Over there. Over there is a ditch. They walk toward it; they try to keep the boy in front of them, shielded from the soldiers. He holds a hand. He takes a hand. One of the men finds himself holding the boy’s hand. Then they want him not to be in front, because of what is in the ditch. They see it first, because they are taller. So they move him back among them so that he cannot see. And this they do together. And it saves them, perhaps, from understanding fully what they have seen. And they think, as they shuffle the boy back behind them, as they walk up to the edge of the ditch, closer, to the edge, move, that this is the case, that they are not really here, that they are instead in a separate place, watching themselves. They turn so that they face the soldiers. No one tells them to do that. They do it for the boy perhaps, so that he does not see, through their legs, past them, the bodies. He turns as well.

The taste in the mouths of the men is a new one. The trees are so still, as if the air has gone.

The boy does a strange thing. It is. What is he doing? The men look at him. He puts his hands up. He stretches out his arms, straight up, into the air, his palms facing forward. The men look at him. What is he doing? Trying to be tall.

A game. Trying to reach a branch. He is even maybe on his tiptoes.

The soldiers all stare at the boy. But they seem divided. The young soldier is furious. Another two, the same. The rest seem lost in a slumber, lazy, forgetful, as if they don’t know where they are, or what they are doing. The senior soldier, most of all, seems sleepy.

Stop it. Stop. ​The youngest soldier is shouting, stamping forward, his gun raised. Put your arms down. I will shoot. I will shoot.  

The men pull at the boy’s arms, pull them down. He is stubborn for a moment. He resists. You’ll get yourself shot​​, they say to him. Stand behind us.

They are almost annoyed, the men. What does he think he’s doing? Surrendering? Giving himself up? Arranging his body in a way that he thinks can be read, and understood. As if it is a password, a secret sign. As if this gesture supersedes all other gestures, and puts an end to this. Like the games he plays, in which a certain phrase, or a tap on the shoulder, or a hand on a tree, makes him safe.

There is no time for this.

They shuffle him again, backwards, so that they stand in front of him. He should not be here. He is a child. They step in front of him. They move him behind their bodies. He stumbles. They face forward. And when they can no longer see the boy because they are looking at the soldiers, and when the soldiers can no longer see the boy because he is behind the men, then of course, of course, that is when the shooting starts.

The soldiers don’t know how. Suddenly their guns are firing and they are holding them and that is just how it is. They shoot all the men. Some of them several times. The bullets go into their bodies. Some of them die instantly; others linger for a few seconds and see the sky go over them and then the trees are upside-down. Only one bullet hits the boy. It hits his chest, at the side. He falls backwards into the ditch and he lands on the old dead. And the new dead fall backwards into the ditch on top of him. After just one or two moments, the shooting stops and the men are all dead. The soldiers look for twitches. They cannot see the boy, hidden as he is by the dead men.

The boy is alive. For a short while. The bullet in his chest would have killed him on its own, eventually. But he suffocates beneath the bodies of the men whose last act was a forlorn attempt to protect him. Perhaps he realizes this, as he dies. Perhaps it comforts him.

The soldiers withdraw. Later the ditch is filled in by other soldiers who have been tasked with the work. They do a good job of it. They tamp down the dirt. They remove a dropped sock, a pen, some shell casings. They throw branches and leaves and clumps of ragwort on the disturbed ground. These men are lucky. They see only the dead. They see only dead men. This is war. What do you expect.

They saw no boy.

The soldiers who did the shooting take the bags of clothes and burn them on a distant fire where other clothes have been burned before. Then they drive back toward their comrades, their quiet bodies carrying the war in their heads. Their truck is hit by a shell seven kilometers from the place of the murder. All but two die. One survivor shoots himself later that day. The other never regains consciousness. He dies after five weeks, in a hospital bed, in white sheets, his handsome, unmarked face mourned by his sister, the war over.

No one knows about the boy. What boy? The men are dead. The soldiers are dead. His family, dead. There is no one who knows what happened.

No one.