The girl sat with her grandfather looking out over the expanse of forest that blazed green under the long, warm rays of the setting sun. Resting her head comfortably against the old man’s brown arm she waited patiently for him to tell her one of his many stories about his younger days in this place.
“All these trees,” he began. “You’d never believe how different this land was when I was your age. So many people. All gone now.”
“Gone where, grandfather?”
“Just gone,” he replied. “It was a long time ago.”
He paused, lost for a minute in recollection. His eyes took on a distant look and started to glisten. He blinked, slowly shook his head, and continued.
“We don’t talk about it, your grandmother and me. None of us who are still here talk about it.”
“What happened? Was it bad?” she asked, a hint of fear touching her voice.
“Bad?” He chuckled briefly. “Oh, no. Not bad. Not then at any rate. Later… but you’re too young to hear about those kinds of things.”
“Aww, please grandfather. I’m not too young. I’m nearly ten. Anyway they told us about the war at school.”
“I know,” he said softly. “Still, there are things they don’t tell you, things they don’t know. Things we saw…”
He shivered and despite the warmth of the sun she felt a chill run down her.
“Grandfather?” Her concern showed plainly as she continued, “It’s all right. You don’t… I mean, it’s all right if you don’t tell me. I don’t want you to get upset.”
“No, you’re family. You should know. And ten already? How fast the time goes! No, you’re old enough to understand. Your father won’t thank me for telling you, mind, but it’s your right to know the truth.”
So the old man told her about those long gone days. About the people who came to this land from far away, escaping a war of their own, looking for shelter and peace. About how they were welcomed, taken into people’s homes, given food and clothes.
He told her how some people had been afraid of the newcomers because they spoke strangely and had different customs. And he told her how his father had spoken to the town, explaining that these were just people like themselves. People with families they loved. People who dreamed of living free from the fear of attack, free from conflict, free from hate.
And then he told her how the enemies of these refugees had followed them across the sea, how they had continued their war here in this land.
“Petra,” he said, “she’d been a teacher but the council here wouldn’t let her teach. They said she wasn’t qualified here so it didn’t count. She worked–oh how she worked, ever hour of the day–and in the evenings she tutored your father. I paid her. It wasn’t much but we weren’t rich.
“Well, as I said, when the others came from her land we thought they were the same and welcomed them as well. We never knew, not till later. If we’d only listened to those who arrived first, but we never did, you know. Not until it was too late. Oh, we knew there was something up but, well, they kept to themselves…
“No, the problem was that we kept them to themselves. For all our talk of welcome we never invited them to belong. We carried on as we had before, not realizing that our guests were becoming our neighbors, that they had made this their home. We never stopped thinking of them as outsiders.
“So when more arrived we didn’t think much of it. Not at first. Oh, there were some mutterings from the first wave but we didn’t think much of it. After all, they were from the same place so they had to be the same, right? Oh, if only…
“The first we knew was when Petra stopped tutoring your father. We tried to phone her but there was no answer; we just assumed she had gotten tired of it. Oh, we heard wild rumors about vigilante mobs among the refugees, about people disappearing, but we didn’t pay it much heed. It wasn’t affecting us, life was normal.
“And then Petra turned up dead, tortured, mutilated. We put it down to some rogue elements among the refugees. Like I said, it didn’t affect us. So we carried on. It was only later when our own people started to disappear that we became alarmed.
“And that’s when I spoke out. I said that these refugees were a bane on our society, that we had made a mistake bringing them into our homes.”
He stopped, tears appeared, running down his cheeks. His voice cracked as he continued,
“Oh, I was so blind. Why did we not see? Why did we keep those first ones at arm’s length? By the time we knew those who followed them were different it was too late, we were at war with them. And they were among us. We were frightened.
“So we turned on all of those who were outsiders. It didn’t matter if they were good or bad: they were not of our people. Those who would have stood with us against the evil we turned away: we didn’t trust them. And by rejecting them we–I–made enemies of those with whom we had no quarrel.
“I used to think ‘If only…’ but no good comes of that. What happened happened. I was a leader. I had influence. I could have… But what’s the point of going over past mistakes. I didn’t and we are where we are today.”
“But grandfather… I thought we won the war?”
“If you call that winning. Yes, in the end there was only us left. But what we lost… Those who would have been our friends, who would have stood shoulder to shoulder with us, were caught in the middle. Attacked by those who had followed them from their homeland and failed by us, who they had thought their friends. I have such regrets, I miss them.
“And after the war who wanted to remain in that town, to be reminded of our cowardice and mistrust? So we moved away, did what we could to erase it from memory, from existence. But I can’t forget, and I hope you will not forget either. I hope you won’t make the same mistakes.
“I can’t go back and change the past, but maybe, if you remember, you can change the future.”
The old man fell silent, and the girl sat there while the sun finally sank below the horizon, seeing in her mind’s eye the old town alive with two peoples living together as one.