Hellish Beauty

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
January/February 2005

By Zaki Moustafa, Illustrated by Ben Wisniewski

As the night breaks into dawn and the sky comes alive, the morning fog rolls through, dampening my uniform and freezing my skin. It billows and curls around the gnarled maple trees and obscures the leaf-strewn ground from my eyes. My dark, sad eyes. Eyes that have been tainted by war. This place would have been beautiful, had it not been for the hellish act that was to be committed here not long from now. May God forgive me. I pull off my cap and wipe my sweaty face on the sleeve of my tattered gray uniform. My legs ache from the long and miserable nights I have seen, but they continue to march mindlessly. I have no control. My worn and splintered musket rubs the skin on my shoulder raw; as it burdens me more with each step I take. Filthy flies follow us; my face is caked with dirt. My hair is long and unkempt, my hands, callused and rough. The steady sloshing of water in my canteen keeps me awake. The leaves are starting to take color as the sun begins to peak over the horizon. We must hurry. Men around me whistle sad tunes and stare at their feet. Being only fourteen years old, it was my choice to join this militia. I now wonder if I made a mistake.

Our regiment leader raises his fist and points ahead through the now clearing fog. A thick gray smoke is curling up through the trees . . . a campfire. The enemy is near. I can hear them, just waking up and fixing breakfast. They are young, just like me. We are ordered to remain silent and ready our rifles, and I do both, wondering whose young life I am going to destroy as I stuff the lead bullet down the barrel and ready the gunpowder. A wave of nausea rolls over me. I don’t want to be here.

Hellish Beauty three soldiers

They are young just like me

We creep forward about forty yards and take up positions behind some large pines. The fog still protects us. From here, I can make out shadowy figures moving about the enemy camp. They are calm and unaware—none carries their weapons. I look over at the regiment leader and he raises his fist. I raise my weapon in the direction of the enemy. He holds up five fingers. I take aim. He proceeds to slowly drop each finger. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and fire. The loud cracks of gunfire explode around me and the shadowy silhouettes fall. Their cries of pain are unbearable and almost all of them are dead after the first barrage. I drop my rifle and once again, noise explodes around me. Those who remained alive in the camp drop and lie still.

Dead men with their surprised eyes thrown wide open. I look down and nearly collapse. A boy, no older than I, lies sprawled on the cold ground, a bullet through his chest, as his open canteen slowly leaks its contents out onto the dirt. No one should have to die this young. I run over to the edge of their encampment and vomit. Taking a small sip from my canteen, I proceed back to my place in line and continue to march. I worry. We are planning a similar attack tomorrow, right here, within this hellish beauty.

Hellish Beauty Zaki Moustafa

Zaki Moustafa, 13
West Palm Beach, Florida

Hellish Beauty Ben Wisniewski

Ben Wisniewski, 12
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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