“Pick up the pace!” the supervisor bellowed, sweat dripping from his chin in the agonizing summer heat. Before him, staggering across the dusty yard, dozens of soldiers struggled to obey his command and make their legs move faster. Their hair was plastered to their foreheads and veins stood out on every bare, glistening arm. Those who were unfortunate enough to have pale skin this far into the year were burned red by the relentless sun, while others who had already tanned felt only stickiness and heat.
And in the midst of it all, jerking her head to try to toss her wet bangs out of her eyes, was Carinn.
With a heavy, grain-filled crate balanced precariously on one shoulder, she slowly made her way through the dust and sun to the other side of the warehouse yard, where the horses and carts stood to be filled. Her knees shook and the muscles in her neck, shoulders, arms, and back strained with the effort of lifting the supply crate. She was as well-muscled as any of the men, but even so, she was facing more difficulty than the others.
Another soldier walking by noticed her snail’s pace and said harshly, “Stop screwing around and get to work. There’s no taking it easy just ’cause you’re a dainty woman.”
Carinn growled at him, fury flashing quick and bright in her eyes. “Stop chatting and maybe you’d be able to keep up with me,” she retorted snappishly, using her anger to give her an extra burst of speed. She pulled ahead of the rude man and ploughed on, jaw set stubbornly even as her muscles screamed. Reaching the cart, she slammed the crate down on the stack and trudged back to the warehouse for more.
As she walked past the supervisor, he narrowed his eyes at her and barked, “Get moving, soldier! I want to see those feet running, else you’ll be back on softer jobs. You’ll never make the army if you can’t even lift grain.” Carinn stopped to give him an angry answer that she was doing her best, but when she saw his lip curl threateningly, she thought better of it. “Now get!” he snapped, and she went on her way, jogging to the warehouse as fast as her shaky legs would take her.
Reaching the supply stores, eyes streaming and throat and lungs burning from the clouds of dust choking the air, Carinn got in line for a new crate. Given momentary rest, she bent over double, hands on her knees, and gasped for breath as the sweat poured from her face. The man in front of her noticed and snorted with disgust and disdain. “Pathetic,” he scoffed, turning up his nose. Carinn’s face hardened with the insult and she straightened, spine rigid and tense.
If he understood half of the hell I’ve been through, she thought bitterly, then he would know I’m anything but. Let’s see a coward like him carry this extra weight. He wouldn’t last a day.
“Pay attention!” someone shouted at her, and Carinn realized that, as she’d been seething to herself while glaring at the ground, the line had moved up and she’d fallen behind. She was shoved roughly and she stumbled forward a step. For a second, she was going to turn around to snap at the soldier who’d pushed her, but then more people started shouting and she quickly dropped the notion. Instead, she jogged to the front of the line and bent down to pick up her crate.
Muscles straining, Carinn heaved the box onto her shoulder and, as its weight settled, she staggered and nearly fell. The boys handing out the supplies eyed her sceptically, muttering something to each other that she was sure was insulting. Gritting her teeth and steadying the load, Carinn turned and headed back to the carts.
Along the way, she passed another woman who carried her crate easily. Her arms were clearly the same size as Carinn’s, her endurance likewise, but yet she had no difficulty. Carinn thought bitterly that it should have been the same for her. She should have no problem lifting the grain. She’d done it before, but yet this time, she was carrying more than just grain, and she was afraid that this was going to kill her.
As the woman passed, walking faster than Carinn could manage, she gave Carinn a dirty look. It was clear what she was thinking: there was no room for the weak in the military. If Carinn ever made it to the army, she would probably be killed the first day. With obvious scorn, the woman walked faster to be away from Carinn.
Digging into her barest reserves of strength, Carinn tried as hard as she could to move faster, to be stronger, to bear the weight with more ease and less struggle. She tried until she shook with the effort and tears sprang to her eyes. She tried–until she felt something inside her snap and she lost all control.
Exhausted arms giving way, Carinn’s crate slipped backwards from her shoulder and crashed to the ground. It broke, wood shattering, and grain spilled across the dust. Carinn stood frozen with shock and unable to believe what had happened. Then the yelling started.
“YOU! GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” roared the supervisor, his face red with anger. He jabbed a finger in Carinn’s direction and then pointed to the barracks. Tears now filling her eyes and slipping down her cheeks, Carinn obeyed with a faster step than she’d had all day. Head down, face red with embarrassment and shame, she pushed through the gaping soldiers and forced herself to ignore their muttering. She knew they thought she was weak, but it was their fault. If they hadn’t expected her to be so damn strong…
Carinn burst into the barracks, startling officers and generals, and walked silently past them and into the back lockers. They were empty, all of the soldiers out in the field carrying supplies, and so she sank into a corner, buried her face in her knees, and sobbed.
She cried alone for a very long time. This was the end of the road, she thought despairingly. After her royal screw-up with the supplies–a task that was supposed to be easy for a soldier who would soon be enduring the rigors of battle–they weren’t going to let her onto the battlefield. The real fighting was reserved for the strongest men and women. Not those who snapped under pressure and were reduced to sobbing messes in the corner. Her grip had slackened for a mere second and she was paying for it deeply.
Just as Carinn was slowing, her tears for the moment stopped, she heard a gentle knock at the locker room door. Looking up, ready to snap angrily at the soldier who would surely enter and tell her to go back to the kitchen where she belonged, Carinn was surprised to see a familiar–and friendly–face. There stood Fissar: Fissar, the cripple with the twisted knee; Fissar, the runt who had never been strong a day in his life.
Fissar came in quietly, walking unevenly on his deformed leg. He carefully lowered himself to the floor next to Carinn and handed her a canteen filled with cold water. Refusing to look at Fissar, she took it and gulped greedily, letting some of the refreshing water slide down her chin and neck. He watched with a straight face, waiting for her to finish before taking back the canteen. He then leaned against the stone wall and closed his eyes, looking as if he could fall asleep.
Carinn stared at him rudely, not understanding why he was there and wishing that he would go away. If she was going to wallow in self-pity and weakness, then she wanted to do it alone. She didn’t want the cripple there to remind her that she was useless, like him.
“Blistering hot today,” he said drowsily, still with his eyes closed. “Enough to make anyone snap.”
“What would you know?” Carinn muttered unkindly. “You’re always inside.”
Fissar shrugged. “Yeah, I know. Still hot.”
Carinn snorted and wished again that he would go away. He was only annoying her. She was about to tell him so when he spoke again in a tone.
“It’s hard when people don’t understand,” he said sadly. “They put me inside because they think I can’t do heavy work like the rest of you. I can’t. But then they expect me to not complain. To act as if this is normal. And I don’t complain. I do the silly work they give me. I don’t tell them when my knee is bothering me and I’m longing desperately to be healed, to be able to do strong things. I don’t complain, and they just don’t know. It’s hard to have a secret weakness like that.”
Carinn felt little sympathy for Fissar. He hadn’t just lost his career like she had–he’d never had one to begin with. “Yeah well, you’re not the only weak one around here,” she said sourly. “You didn’t just lose everything with one spilled crate of grain.”
“No, I didn’t,” Fissar agreed easily, still not having opened his eyes.
Carinn shook her head, angry with herself for having made such a horrible mistake. “I needed the pay the army would get me,” she told Fissar. “That was going to support my family. My husband–he tries hard to bring home an income, but the crops aren’t growing in this drought. He can’t keep the fields watered and so he has nothing to sell at market. That leaves it up to me–and my pathetic pay right now isn’t cutting it.”
“You have kids?” Fissar asked, sounding faintly surprised.
Carinn nodded, new tears filling her eyes. “My little boy, Tommas, and two girls, Caty and Liviann. They don’t want much, and they know that their parents work hard to care for them, but I know that they’re sad. Their friends have nice clothes and toys, but they have hand-me-downs and have to play with sticks and rocks.” Carinn’s throat tightened as she said, “There are days when I look into Liviann’s eyes and see nothing but despair. She’s sad that her mum has to work so hard and that her dad doesn’t sleep at night. She’s sad that her brother and sister don’t have nice things. She’s especially sad because there’s nothing she can do to help. She’s the oldest–she understands more than the others that our family isn’t okay. And that’s painful for me as a mother to have to bear.”
Fissar opened his eyes then, giving Carinn a compassionate look and putting a gentle hand over hers. Choking on sobs, Carinn said, “I work so hard for them, trying to make sure that they’ll be okay, but I barely see them anymore. When I come home at night, they’re already sleeping in bed. When I get up in the morning, I have only enough time to wake them and make breakfast before I have to kiss them goodbye and leave for the day. I spend one day a week with my kids, and I’m usually too tired to do anything fun with them. And my husband never stops working. He’s always in the field, trying to get the crops to grow. There are days when I feel like my kids don’t even have parents.”
“You’re doing the best you can,” Fissar murmured comfortingly, but Carinn shook her head.
“No, I’m not. I just lost my job, I know I did. The people here expect me to work so damn hard, to be so damn strong, but they don’t understand that I have the weight of my family bearing on my shoulders. They don’t understand that I can’t be as strong as they need me to be. And so I’ve failed. I have no strength.”
Fissar squeezed her fingers and said, “You have more strength than any of them. None of them could rise every morning and come to work the whole day if they were in the same situation. It takes an incredibly strong woman to leave her children so that she can care for them. You’re stronger than everyone else, but what they don’t understand is that most of your strength is beneath the surface, where they can’t see it. They don’t understand that your soul can carry a thousand crates of grain. Sometimes, people just don’t understand.”
Carinn nodded sadly, crushed by the knowledge that it was this misunderstanding that was hurting her family. “I wish that they did understand,” she said softly.
Fissar sighed. “It can break a person, not being understood. When no one tries, people snap. They bend under the weight of assumptions and expectations. There aren’t enough people to listen.”
They fell into silence as Fissar sat in his peaceful way and Carinn let his words wash over her. Then, letting go of Carinn’s hand, Fissar struggled to his feet, stumbling on his bad leg, and gave her one last sympathetic smile. “You’re strong enough for your whole family,” he said softly, and then turned and limped from the locker room. Carinn watched him leave silently, her chest feeling empty. It was a good emptiness.
There aren’t enough people to listen, she thought quietly, but sometimes, one is all you need.
There are days when I don’t feel good. I go to school or work or wherever feeling low, depleted, and weak before I’ve even started working. I’m tired and angry, but I don’t act that way. I act normally, as if nothing’s wrong. I keep it inside because there is a great deal of misunderstanding. Sometimes, strength is mistaken for weakness, and a single moment of vulnerability is considered inadequacy. That’s hard to bear, and so I stay silent.
But sometimes, if we’re lucky, a hero will come by. Someone who will close their eyes and stop paying attention to the weakness they see on the outside. They’ll stop to listen, and they’ll see the strength that’s on the inside, buried beneath the struggle and the pain. Sometimes, we don’t need a hero who can fix our problems and give us strength. Sometimes, we just need a hero who will make the effort to understand.
If I’m ever to become a hero, this is the kind of hero I want to be.
It’s a bit of a long post, I know–the story’s been in my head for a while and once I started writing, well, I couldn’t get my fingers to shut up. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t talk a whole lot–the words have to get out somehow.
Do you have a hero who will listen?
May you always have someone who will close their eyes and listen to your inner strength, and may you be able to do the same.