The Spirit of Pity
“Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’”
– Thomas Hardy, from “And There Was A Great Calm”
The old woman tossed away the newspaper in disgust, snorting as she did so.
At the sudden sound the cat lazily half-opened its eyes, a sliver of gold on the ragged grey striped fur. It lifted its grey head and peered up at the arm of the leather recliner that loomed above it. Seeing nothing wrong after a half-hearted scan, it yawned and lowered its face, curled up more tightly on the patterned carpet and settled back to sleep.
The old woman leaned back into the armchair, which had been a gift from her son, and sighed. She was Ideca Stones, the old witch across the street, they said. Don’t go near her, the mothers warned, she has issues. The old witch had cackled secretly at that.
Outside the open window the sun was setting and the red-golden leaves were falling, one by one, like old soldiers on a battlefield, and dancing like ghosts in the wind.
On the floor, the tumble of paper and print lay splayed out on the carpet. One sheet declared, in bold letters, “Japan-China ministers in severe meeting over islands row.”
“Really,” Ideca Stones said aloud, “everyone is fighting over every little thing now.”
She snorted again and muttered, looking down over the arm of her recliner, “But then, they always have, haven’t they.”
She reached a wrinkled arm down to touch the gray-striped cat’s scratchy head. The cat’s face immediately jerked around to stare at her with a glaring golden gaze. What do you want? it seemed to ask. She laughed lightly and gently scratched its head.
“I was just wondering whether you were even listening, you bone-idle old cat,” she told it.
The cat mrrowed and turned away, yawned again, and got up and stretched. It padded away towards its food bowl and sat down beside it. It meowed once, insistently, yellow eyes once again glaring. My food, it said silently.
Ideca grunted, and got up, “I know you’re a glutton, no need to emphasise it,” she said, walking over to the cupboard.
She opened it and lifted out, with slight difficulty, and bag of dry cat food about the size of a pillow.
“I know, I know. Just wait a moment.” The cat stared, golden orbs wide, as she poured out the food.
“Bob’s your uncle,” Ideca said as she set down the now filled bowl with a loud clack and patted the cat’s side.
Getting up, she instinctively dusted her hands off on her dark blue pants and then headed back to her seat beside the window. She paused just before she reached it, however, and turned to face the bookcase. After a moment’s thought, she put out a pale hand and pulled out a book of war poems, her father’s, she knew. The moment she opened it she was hit by the perfume of its scent. She blinked and, taking in the sweet smell of old books, opened it.
“At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun/ In the wild purple of the glow'ring sun,” said the page.
She looked up at the title, “Attack,” by Siegfried Sassoon.
“Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud/ The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,” the words insisted.
“Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire/ The barrage roars and lifts,”
The little girl sat on her father’s lap as he read to her.
Her father’s deep voice filled her, “Then, clumsily bowed/ With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear/ Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.”
She said, “Why are you reading this, Daddy? It’s so dark.”
“Because, Ideca, I want you to know how much your granpa went through so we can be here now,” the man told her.
The girl’s bright green eyes stretched wide, “I’m sorry for granpa,” she looked up at her father, “You said he got killed in a tank, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” came the reply.
The girl turned her face back to the book’s open pages.
“Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear/ They leave their trenches, going over the top,”
The girl, now older, read silently to herself as she sat on her bed.
“While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists/ And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,” Muffled sobs floated into her room from the kitchen.
“I’m so sorry, Clem,” said her uncle. More sobs stung her ears.
Her aunt’s voice asked, “What will you do now? You won’t be eligible for a widow’s pension since he was shot for... deserting... the front. I’m sorry.”
“I d-on’t know,” her mother’s voice shook, “I don’t know what we’ll do.”
It’s 1943 and I’m nine and I have no father. Turning off the light, Ideca curled up in her bed and didn’t even try to ignore the tears streaming down her face.
“Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!”
The old woman shut the book abruptly. Memories, memories. Fighting, fighting, fighting, all over little things. How was the Great War caused? When the Germans invaded little Belgium, and dragged Britain into the tempest of war.
There were suddenly sounds of cat screeching outside, probably two of them fighting over a mouse. The old yellow-eyed grey tabby lifted its head to stare out the window. It watched for a long while then lost interest, settling its chin back onto its paws.
Big ones fighting over little ones. China and Japan fighting over little islands. Pft. How many people would die in a useless conflict like that? How many people would lose their fathers and brothers?
How many people would be scarred, like her uncle, called up later in 1943 and permanently damaged, who later killed himself? Like Rudyard Kipling, whose hurt at his son John’s death in the Great War would be forever echoed in his writings?
The cat yawned, letting out a tiny rusty squeak as it did so. Ideca stared at nothing for a while. It had begun to rain outside but she made no move to close the window, only kept staring.
Finally, after a while, she decided that she needed some tea and got up, placing the book on the table beside the armchair. As her steps were fading away to the second floor, a great gust of wind blew in from the window and the book’s covers flew apart, the pages turning rapidly before the wind died down.
The cat opened one intelligent eye and spotted the new potential sleeping place. It got up from its carpet and leapt silently onto the book’s open pages and settled down. The old cat adjusted its position several times before finally closing its golden eyes, its paw laid out before it, half covering a short couplet:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
– Rudyard Kipling
Father: essentially based off of Joseph Stones, who was shot in 1916 for “casting away his arms and running away from the front line,” despite his claim that he had run back to warn his comrades at the orders of his dying lieutenant.
Uncle: essentially based off of Brigadier General H. E. Elliot, who, traumatised by the war (especially the Battle of Fromelles in 1916), killed himself fifteen years later in Australia.
- Also (this is slightly irrelevant), according to an article from March this year, suicide rates have soared to 80% more since the start of the Iraq War.