The drivers were big women with broad hands and faces smeared with mortar grit, and they reeked of the dead. Even when we did not see them passing through the gates, ferrying truckloads of our dead, they came to us in our dreams, the women of our occupation.
My brother and I did not understand why they had come. They were from a far shore none of us had ever seen or heard of, and every night my father cursed them as he turned on the radio. He kept it set to the resistance channel. No one wanted the women here.
My brother got up the courage to ask one of the women, “Who stays at home with your kids while you’re here?”
The woman laughed and said, “You’re our children now.”
But I knew the way to conquer the women. When I was old enough, I would marry them. All of our men would marry them, and then they’d belong to us, and everything would be the way it was supposed to be.
We woke one night to the sound of a burst siren. The scream was only a muffled moan in the heavy, humid air.
My mother bundled up my brother and grabbed the house cat. My father made me carry the radio. We hid in the cellar under the house, heard the dull thumping of bursts.
“They’re looking for insurgents,” my father said. He turned on the radio, got only static. “You know they castrate them.”
“Hush, Father,” my mother said.
My brother started crying.
The death trucks and the mortar trucks came the next morning. The women loaded up the bodies. They shoveled away the facades that had come off the houses. Our house was all right, but the one next door had been raided. The yeasty smell of spent bursts clung to everything. The house had fallen in on itself.
I saw them bring out a body, but I couldn’t tell who it was. My mother pulled the curtains closed before I could see anything else. She told me to stay away from the windows.
“Why are they here?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “No one knows.”
One night, many months into the occupation, two women came to our door.
My mother answered. She invited them in and offered them tea and bloody sen. The sen would stain their tongues and ease their minds, and the tea was said to warm women’s souls. If they had them.
The women declined.
I stood in the doorway of the kitchen and peered out at them. My brother was at the table eating cookies.
The women asked after my father.
“Working,” my mother said. “Men’s work. He’s an organic technician.”
One of the women stepped over to the drink cabinet. She flicked on the radio.
My mother stood very still. She gripped her dishrag in one hand, so tightly I thought her fingernails would bite through it and cut her palm.
The radio played—a slow, easy waltz. Someone had tuned it back to the local station.
“Your husband’s study, where is it?” the other woman asked.
“This way,” my mother said. My mother looked straight at me. They would have to come through the kitchen.
I ducked back into the kitchen and slipped into the study. I pulled open the top drawer. My father’s gun was heavy. Blue and green organics sloshed in the transparent double barrels. I’d never held it before. I didn’t know where to put it. Father’s papers were there, too, papers about the resistance that he said we weren’t supposed to touch.
My brother had followed me in. He waddled up to the desk, stared at the gun.
“You’re in trouble,” he said.
“Quiet,” I said. “We’ll play a game. Sit here. I’ll give you more cookies.”
When the women came in behind my mother, my brother and I were sitting up on the big leather sofa by the window. I opened up father’s screes board. My brother stared at the women.
The women went right to the desk. I tried not to look at them. They opened up the gun drawer.
The largest woman turned to me. She wore a long dark coat, even in all the heat. Sweat beaded her big face.
“Come here,” she said.
“He’s only—” my mother began.
“Here,” the woman said.
I got up. She put her big hands all over me, patted me down. She looked around the room. Looked back at us.
“Get out,” she said. “We’re cleaning this room.”
I took my brother by the hand. The three of us went to wait in the living room. My mother kept staring at me. I gave my brother more cookies. We sat and listened to the sounds of the crashing and tearing coming from my father’s study.
After a long time, the women came out. They stood in front of us and put their hats back on.
“Good evening,” they said.
“Good evening,” my mother said.
When they were gone, my mother held out her hand to me. I pulled up the back of my brother’s shirt and took out the gun and the papers. My mother cried. She pulled us both into her arms.
My father did not come home that night. Or the next night. We got a telegram from the women. They had taken my father away for questioning. He would be kept for an undefined period.
We were alone.
With father gone, we had no money. The lab he worked for wouldn’t send us anything. They were afraid that the women would accuse my father of something.
The neighbors came and brought over food and ration tickets. My mother went to each house afterward and asked if they needed laundry done, or shirts mended, but they all said the same thing. They were saving their own money. No one could help us.
“What about the women?” I said. “Who mends their shirts?”
My mother frowned at me. “Certainly not their husbands,” she said.
So my mother allowed the women into our house, and she mended their shirts. She cleaned and pressed their dress pants, their stiff white collars. My brother and I shined their boots.
It was strange, to have the big women in the house, wearing their long dark coats and guns. My mother did not speak to them any more than she had to. When they came in she held herself very stiffly. She pursed her mouth. Her eyes seemed very black.
I tried to hate the women, too. They always greeted me like the man of the house, because they had taken my father. If I was the one who answered the door, they always asked my permission to see my mother. They were very polite. Sometimes they would talk to each other in low voices, in their own language. It was soft and rhythmic, like the memory of my mother’s voice before I could understand the words.
After a month of this, one of the women said to my mother, “It will be a shame when your husband returns. We will have no clean shirts.”
My mother just stared at her. I had never seen her look so angry.
When my father did come back, red dust filled the seams of his face. His hair had gone white. The spaces under his eyes were smeared in sooty footprints, a dark wash against his sallow skin.
He had no marks or scars that I could see. He still had all of his fingers. But he walked with a limp that he had not had before, and he could not close his left hand into a fist. He became very quiet. He spent most days sitting in a chair by the big window, staring out. He did not speak to us. He could not go to work.
My mother had to keep mending shirts. When the women came, my father moved his chair into his study and shut the door. He started smoking opium.
The air inside the house was heavy all the time. My mother sent me out more often to run errands for her. She didn’t have time to go to the market herself. Father never left the house. My brother tried to go with me, but mother made him stay behind to shine the boots.
On the street, I met other boys with homes like mine. Their fathers had all been taken in as well. I went out with a group of them to throw rocks at the windows of a women’s barracks. But the women were waiting for us. They grabbed the oldest boys. They shot them in the head.
I didn’t leave the house for a while, after that. I hated the women. I hated them, and I dreamed of them.
The women were making changes. They draped their country’s colors over ours. They did it first at the police buildings, then the government buildings. Fewer trucks of bodies and mortar rubble passed through the gates. There were fewer night sirens.
After a year, I noticed something else, though my mother said I imagined it, said I was giving the women more power than they had. The summers were not as hot. The air wasn’t as humid. The women were changing the weather, too.
My mother tried to make things normal. She tried to get me and my brother to go to the new schools, the ones the women opened after shutting down ours. In those schools, all of the teachers were teenage girls. Our girls, but girls just the same.
What were we supposed to learn, from girls?
The women in our house kept coming. Some of them lived just down the street now, in houses where the owners were killed or deported for being part of the resistance. When I asked one of the women if she ever got lonely in the big house, she said no, she never got lonely.
“I live with my sisters,” she said.
“Why don’t they do your laundry?” I said.
My brother was shining her boots. My mother looked up sharply, but I didn’t care. I was the man of the house. I could say what I wanted.
The woman just laughed like it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
Some time later, I met a girl at school I liked, and she liked me, I think. But the next year, she left school because she wanted to join the new fighting squad that the women had started. Girls were allowed to join when they were fourteen. I got angry when she told me she was going.
“What,” I said, “you want to learn how to kill people like those women do? You’ll be just like them.”
She glared at me. Black eyes, like my mother’s. “They won,” she said. “It won’t be so bad to be like someone who wins, will it?”
“Won? What did they win?”
“Everything,” she said.
I left school, even though it made my mother angry. I got a job unloading fishing boats in the bay. There were mostly men down there, though the women were posted around as guards and they had put a bunch of girls in charge of customs. Those women made a lot more money than any of us working the boats.
I once heard one of the men say something nasty to the customs girls. He called them whores, and traitors, and said he could fuck the traitor out of them. He said it in front of two women working as customs guards. One of the women pulled out her gun and shot him. I still stayed on in my mother’s house. Father’s health got worse. We lost more and more of him to opium.
I sat with him one hot night during the monsoon season. All of the windows were open, letting in the rain, but he wouldn’t let me close the house up. Mother had taken my brother to the hospital. He had an infection in his lungs.
“I have such dreams,” my father said. He reached for my hand. I let him take it. His hand was cold and clammy in mine, despite the heat.
“I dream that the women came from another world,” he said. “They came on boats made of spice and spun sugar. We disappointed them. They’re too hungry for us.” He turned his blank stare to me. “They’re going to eat us.”
There was a new woman on watch at customs. She looked at me only once, but I couldn’t help but follow her with my eyes. She was big and tall like the others, and her face and hands were broad. She had a dark complexion and tilted green eyes, like jade. She looked twenty. I wasn’t even sixteen. I didn’t think she noticed me. But she caught me heading home and said, “The streets are not safe for boys. I’ll bring you home.”
She was a head taller than me, but she moved like water. We walked through the maze of deserted streets bordering the harbor and passed under a gaslight. She suddenly took me by the arm and pulled me into a dark alley. I choked on a cry. She pressed me against the gritty wall of an abandoned warehouse and shoved her hand down the front of my trousers. I struggled, but didn’t say anything. Her big body and long coat shielded me from the street. No one could see me. No one at the dock. Not my mother. Not my father.
I gripped the back of her neck, dug my fingers into her hair. She pulled me into her.
When I saw her again, she was with a group of women by the customs house. I nodded at her. She turned to the other women, said something in their language.
The women all looked at me. They laughed.
All of the women kept looking at me. They kept laughing. I had to leave the docks.
I got a job driving mortar trucks through the gates. Most of the women had given up those jobs by then. They were all working in government and security positions.
During the day, I went to the ruins of old houses. I could still smell the yeast of old bursts. I shoveled up all the raw material and loaded it into the truck. I met other young men like me. I met men who had wanted to be teachers and doctors. It was the women, they said, who held them back. The women took all of the jobs. The women were too intimidating. The women owned the world.
One night, I drove my mortar truck through the gate and stopped at the big pit where the bodies and rubble were heaped. The women had bombed out the original government offices, long before. They used the deep pit left behind as a waste dump. I sat in the truck and stared out at the pit for a long time.
I got home sometime just before midnight.
My mother sat alone in the dark living room. She sat staring into the empty fireplace. A pile of neatly folded laundry sat at her hip. Shirts hung on the line in the kitchen.
“Do you want some light?” I asked her.
She was very still.
“Is father all right?” I asked.
“He’s passed,” she said. Her dishrag lay in her lap. She did not touch it.
I went upstairs. Father lay in bed. A single gas lamp flared, casting dark shadows. There was a bloody, clotted smear against the far wall. Half of father’s head was gone. I saw the gun near his limp hand. His eyes were still open.
He had left no note.
Some women came to collect the body, though a man drove the body truck. One of the women turned to me just before they left. “We all battle dragons,” she said. “There’s no shame in losing.”
“There’d be no battle,” I said coldly, “without the dragons.”
She grinned, slid her hat back on. “There will always be dragons,” she said. “It’s only a matter of who plays the dragon, who plays the sheep. Which would you rather be?”
I spent the rest of the night in the market square, watching the women. Sunrise rent the sky like the remnants of a red dress. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a red dress. I didn’t miss them.
I watched the changing of the guard. I bought a newspaper. It was in two languages now, ours and the women’s. I kept turning the page back and forth, back and forth, but I could see no difference between one and the other.
All the news was the same.