The Guerrillas' Rucksacks

Donna Lee Miele is an American writer of Filipinx and Italian descent. Her work meditates on families affected by war, colonialism, and displacement. "The Guerrillas' Rucksacks" was originally published in |tap| litmag. It is now a part of Short Édition's series, The Current.

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Originally published in the online market|tap| litmag.
Within a few weeks of her escape, the girl outgrew her only dress and had nothing to wear. Trying not to make a fuss, I gave her something of mine. She thanked me. She looked so ashamed. That she, a child forced to comfort soldiers, should suffer shame for a baby fathered by violence, made me glower. No doubt that made her feel worse. Her face began to collapse like a grass shack in the wind.

"Please, Mam," she said. "I can work."

"Of course you can," I said. "There is always work."

The weather should have been friendlier. The monsoons did not usually come so early. Rain poured down during the part of the day that should be driest, and left behind dense, moist air all night long. We could not dry or mill grain for days. But the monsoons also discouraged visits from patrolling soldiers. I taught the girl to make rucksacks for the guerrilla army from the empty grain sacks.

She was reluctant at first. My own daughter, who was only a year younger but by God's grace would remain a child for a few years more, told her, "They're impossible!" and complained about the hemp fabric cutting one's hands. "The needles will poke through to your lap and leave blood on your skirt," she said. "Only Mother's skin is thick enough to keep from bleeding."

My daughter was never a seamstress. Only her academic achievements may one day let her rise above the station of laundress. If the war does not end, who knows whether her academic achievements will mean anything.

But the pregnant girl was more eager to prove herself than to worry about a little blood—and since she wore my dress, anyway, I reassured her that it didn't matter. The stains would wash out. She even smiled, knowing that my daughter would be the one to wash out the stains.

She began with pinning the pieces I cut. Within two days, she was basting. I showed her the backstitch necessary for the longer seams. Before the end of that month, she could sew all but the straps, which I had to make from long strips of muslin and fold, press, fold, press, finishing them and fixing them in place with a strong, steady hand, lest my needle break in two.

By the day on which we finished the rucksacks, her belly had grown to nearly fill my dress—my dress! And I a fat old woman of thirty-five who'd borne so many babies. Yet, her arms and knees were still a child's arms and knees. Her face was thinner, maybe, than it had been when she first arrived.

"Look," I said, "we're done." The rucksacks, made of smooth, crackling hemp, looked like plain rice sacks when laid flat. The straps revealed themselves only when one lifted the sack. They were cleverly and well made.

To my surprise, her face shook and almost crumpled. "I thought there would be more work," she said.

It took me a stunned moment to realize she meant, Don't send me away.

"We're done," I repeated. "In exchange for the rucksacks, the guerrillas have promised to lead us to refuge." Of course, I could not know whether the price of our deliverance would be fully paid by the rucksacks, nor whether deliverance was truly possible. All I'd done was all I could do.

The girl, I'd learned, did not speak much, but I knew she understood this even better than I did. The war might never end. Childhood would always be stripped away too soon.

Still, something settled and eased in her expression when I said us. I could hear her breath soften as her brow-line and lips relaxed. I'd come to know her well enough that I think I understood the change: it was a child's joy, relief, and sense of revelation, complicated by a woman's wariness; but more importantly, something had smoothed out the shame so that she could look me in the eye. It was something like pride.

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