The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808 -10
Just as she stood there, fully drenched in the rain, Maya did not know what came over her. She should have been used to it by now. She had faced this over a million times. She was trained to be unaffected by all this, remain controlled and impassive at all times. But this time...this time it was different. Painfully different.
The cries of agony from her dead comrades with their broken faces, fear-stricken eyes wet with tears, and blood smothered over their scarred faces flashed through her mind repeatedly. Blood. Regardless of how many times she was mutilated and tortured, the crimson red liquid would always be the most distinctive and terrifying smell in existence. She could grow used to the sight of it gushing out of the bodies, but that solid metallic smell tormented her nostrils and taste buds to no end. Nauseating, petrifying, and staggering - that was a kind of gut-wrenching torment she could never let go of. It always lingered like a bloody shadow…
Maya leaned on the fence, lost in her maelstrom of thoughts until a loud splash of water pulled her back to reality. Her breathing was shallow as she watched the bloodied, charred mass of bodies being disposed into the sea. They were the bodies of people she once fought alongside, the ones she lived with, trained with, laughed, ate, and drank with! And now, all that was left of them was their rotting corpse, putrid and mangled. The image of their scorched corpses was burnt in the back of her eyelids - an image that would plague her for eternity and drive her into insanity.
The night was cold, and lightning loomed on the horizon where a storm was brewing. She felt the raindrops land on her face and mix with her salty tears, each drop growing bigger and bigger until it started hurting her exposed flesh. Her body trembled, and her lips quivered, both from the chill of the rain and the rising uneasy pit she felt in her stomach. Maya clutched onto the railing with her shaky hands as her teeth gritted, in an attempt to control her growing urge to let any more tears fall out. Tears...Tears were something she never shed. Her emotions were kept locked deep inside her heart. It took her by surprise as she felt the first teardrop rolling down her cheek. How many years has it been since she last shed tears? And why were they falling now? Why now?
The ship sailed closer to the storm, the skies unfurled, and the rains lashed down in torrents. The streaks of lightning crashed with a thunderous growl, illuminating the small scars and tear-trails on her worn-down face. Her breasts heaved as the last barrier to her locked up soul slowly came tumbling down. It was like the domino effect - when the first domino falls, there is no control, the rest just tumble down.
The gigantic waves of the turbulent ocean that consumed the bodies of those who couldn't live to see tomorrow crashed onto her feet. The air was as tempestuous and grim as the pain that tore through her heart and emerged as tears out of her eyes. Endless tears. Drenched in water and unable to stand from the weight of both the wet clothes and the intensity of her heartache, Maya fell to her knees, her hands still tightly grasped on the railing. A scream - violent and raw - poured out of her mouth, rumbling through her lungs. Maya's hands dropped from the railing and hit the ground with a loud thud, her upper body curled into a cocoon. Shaking fervently as her nails scratched the platform below her, she screamed until she choked and burst into a turmoil of uncontrollable hiccups. Blood flew through her fingers into the puddle of rainwater around her, swirling into tiny red patterns.
She looked up to the skies as if asking the heavens to take her away from this world that collapsed into a never-ending abyss and consumed her soul. The image of her terrified comrades, not wanting to give in to Death's cruel touch, repeatedly flickered through her mind like a film on loop - those helpless, scared faces.
Maya hugged herself, her fingers sharply gripping the rough material of the jacket. She felt her hand brush past the thick fabric of her badge with the words 'Rise From The Ashes Of The Fallen' engraved on it. But instead of hope, all she felt was despair and rage. "TO HELL WITH THE BLOODY SYMBOLISM!" She coughed, ripping the badge and throwing it away with a cry. Metaphors and word games would never bring her fallen soldiers back. They were gone forever. Their memories would haunt the decks of the ship, and its forsaken voyagers, abandoned by death and doomed to sail through the untamed waters of the world, clouded by misery and war.
A sudden shout nearby made Maya's breath hitch. It took her a few seconds to register that it was her name that was being shouted. She was so exhausted that she slowly tilted her head up when she heard her name being called out for the third time.
A spark of recognition struck her as she realised who the voice belonged to, who the figure standing over her was. Her tank top was plastered to her body, and her jacket, now torn and in rags, hung over her rumpled. Her body shook uncontrollably, her face was swollen, and her eyes aflame.
“C-Commander,” She coughed, despite her burning throat. The girl warily eyed her superior, both embarrassed and intimidated.
The Commander inhaled sharply, his eyes observing her current state. Soaked in the rain, bloodied, and a complete mess.
An uncomfortable silence of a few seconds passed as the duo stayed there, face to face. With the pain tearing through her, she wanted to lie down on her back, the rain piercing through her skin to drown her under the sky's vicious rage. But the soldier in her pulled her body up, the years of habits drilled into her.
"Sorry about this, Sir," Maya whispered, her eyes dared to make eye contact with her superior. The little antic, the scene she just pulled, could get her in trouble. But, as a woman who was used to walking through the darkest paths of humanity, witnessing the most diabolical hullabaloos and living with the most tormenting bogeys that haunted her sleep every night, she shouldn't have succumbed to her tears. Petty tears.
Her stomach felt vertiginous, waiting expectantly for the punishment or reprimanding that awaited her for her little theatrics. After all, she wasn't supposed to give a damn about her fallen comrades because she would have to climb over their corpses to win the battle - not her battle, but the war of bloody incompetent tyrannical morons who were ravenous for more power. But right now, this was about her.
"Get that hand checked."
To Maya's surprise, he didn't sound angry. There wasn't a hint of annoyance or resentment in his face or voice- both equally void of emotions. "And get some rest, Maya. You deserve it." He said, turning away and walking into one of the hazily lighted up decks.
Maya stood there, her mind still lost somewhere in the languid depths of the violent ocean with her soldiers. Languid and violent - ironic, isn't it? The girl stood there, observing the scene around her. The few people who were awake in the middle of the night just stayed there, quiet and lost in their own thoughts, as if paying a silent reverence to the fallen. No one tried to move, talk, or even acknowledge another's presence - an eerie silence hovered over the survivors - the ones condemned to carry the pain of loss and shame of their vanquishment, like Atlas, who was condemned to carry the heavens upon his shoulder after his humiliating defeat.
Maya sniffled lightly and hugged herself tightly as she walked towards the Medical Room, fighting her body's strong urge to ignore her Commander's orders. She was lucky enough to live to see another day, to still have breath in her lungs and a sentient, aching soul.
It was a chilly morning. The air was crisp while the sun beamed in pristine orange from the horizons, its rays painting the sky in a mosaic of orange, blue, and pink. Maya was never a morning person, but the breaking dawn gave her a much-needed hiatus, despite the frigid air that burnt her nose. A stark contrast it was - the sun rising from the depths of the cold, unforgiving waters. At the same time, her dead soldiers descend deeper and deeper into its cold pits.
It was quiet on board - a bit too quiet. The usual chatter, laugh, and friendly banter was now replaced with silent whispers and melancholic faces. Everyone lost someone. But Maya felt as if she had not just lost; she failed everyone. No one was spared.
She pulled out a cigarette, lighting it with the Zippo lighter she had borrowed from one of the rookies on the field. Leaving her lighter in her room that day was probably the worst decision, considering how things turned out later. The poor rookie was struck several times, and Maya watched in horror as his head exploded and lay there like an opened tin of beans. A spark of guilt - unrelenting and unforgiving fleeted in her eyes as she held the lighter in front of her, observing its tiny designs of scratches. It was not the first time she felt this emotion, it was something that she had learnt to live with, despite the tide of self-disgust that kept washing over her, each time she lost a comrade.
'The Captain goes down with its sinking ship' Maya let out a dark chuckle. "And here, the crew goes down into the Locker while its Captain lives to see another sunrise," She murmured, stressing on the word 'Captain' with a hint of self-loathing.
If Jacob Marley's chains symbolize his greed, Maya's chains symbolised her incompetence.
"Damn." She muttered, inhaling the contents of the cancerous roll and letting it ravage every cell of her lungs. She closed her eyes shut, letting the sea breeze tickle her skin, losing herself to the momentary tranquillity Mother Nature offered her. The gentle lapping of the waves put her in a hypnotic trance as she breathed in the green rich air surrounding her. But her divine hush was knocked down by sounds of footsteps that grew louder and louder until the person stood beside her.
"Commander," Maya greeted, sans her usual energetic and cheery voice. The man nodded, acknowledging her greeting. His eyes briefly glanced at her now bandaged bruised hands.
"How's the hand?"
"Better," She turned towards him with a slightly lopsided grin that faded as soon as it formed. There was always something about the Commander's presence. He was cold and aloof, but calming. It felt like her earlier raging emotions pacified slowly, like how the ocean ahead of them stayed calm after the blustery storm the night before.
And before she knew it, the words she had been trying to swallow with a painful lump down her constricted throat spilt out. "I should have taken their place. I should be the one who's dead." Her lips quivered uncontrollably, almost as if regretting the words she had just uttered. She hoped that her voice fluxed away with the whistling of the wind, but she was sure that he would have heard it.
Maya was Icarus, whose wax melted as she fell once again into the depths of her emotional trenches. It was the Commander - her mentor and confidant, who was the sun at her end.
"Did you have any prior knowledge about this trap?"
Maya shook her head sideways, disappointment tearing up her eyes again.
"Did you lose a lot of good soldiers?"
Maya whispered a shaky 'yes', her head hanging in shame. Inflamed with inconsolable grief, the girl clenched her fists as if trying to suppress her crippling soul from crumbling down any further.
"Were you responsible for their deaths?"
Maya burst into tears as she shook her head in agreement. She painfully recalled her last words to her soldiers before they marched into the warzone:
“I know you all are ready to die for our objective and cause, but I am here to tell you: We will get through this alive, and it is my job to make sure that we do so. No one gets blown over on my watch. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am!” The soldiers answered in unison, all determined and unfaltering. And she never kept her word. Instead of saving them and bringing them home healthy and safe, she returned while they fell to their tragic demise. Pathetic.
"And that's where you are wrong." The Commander’s voice broke Maya’s chain of thoughts, her eyes widened in bewilderment.
"What?" She said, looking up to the man, confusion etched on her face.
"You are not the one who's got the blood of great soldiers on your hands. It's the enemy. You tried your best to save them." The Commander paused for a moment, observing the girl's reaction. She was not satisfied, still unwilling to give in to the fact that her ledger was not dripping red from her Comrades' blood.
"This is reality, Maya. You can't magically conjure an escape route and get out. You lose people, and it's never going to get easier. But are you willing to give in to self-pity and stay here, beating yourself up over this? Or do you want to go at it again, take the bull by the horn?"
Just as the Commander was about to complete his sentence, a voice laced with worry interrupted him. "Sir! We've detected some serious motion readings." The duo turned towards the soldier, and the Commander nodded his head, motioning him to continue. Maya's expression changed from sadness to worry as the Soldier revealed to them that an unknown Warship, possibly from the enemy, was headed their way.
"Alright. Gear up, I'll be there," The Commander ordered, earning a firm nod from the soldier. He turned towards Maya, his expression softening a little.
"Whatever happened back there, Maya, it's done and gone." Maya looked to the ground, her mind replaying the lost battle that she fought and all the men she lost. "You stay here, it's alright. I can call in for a bird to take you back to the HQ. But if you choose to step out again in the field, you fight to avenge and you kill to avenge." He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently, "Think about it," He said, a small smile curled on his lips.
Maya bit the flesh of her inner lip, giving her Superior a firm nod. "Yeah. Thank you, sir."
"Good," The Commander said, patting her shoulder gently, leaving the girl alone to her thoughts.
Maya looked ahead to the horizon, the warm rays of the sun dancing on her face, a stark contrast to the biting chill of the air surrounding her. Leaning on the railings, she looked ahead with a bittersweet smile, reminiscing her last moments with her soldiers. Her hands fell limp beside her, dropping her cigarette. “It’s only a fool’s chance.” She chuckled, crushing the cigarette under her boot. She let out a tired sigh, feeling the gentle gush of the breeze on her face as the ship sailed ahead. She watched the gentle rolling of the glistening vanilla orange waves, each pulse steady and quiet. Then, shaking her head lightly, she turned away, whispering, "Peace to the fallen."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Prima is a creative writer who loves to write stories, poems and compilations of events. A blogger herself, her blog, the Whimsywisp, speaks about an undergraduate's journey into the adult world. When she is not writing, she likes to read, thrillers and murder mysteries being her favourites. She is a globetrotter who loves exploring new cultures and people.