Story and Art by Kit Lau
The Taste of Coffee EditThe heavy rainfall has continued for over a month. The sky looks the same at all hours. It’s impossible to tell day from night. The acid rain on the ground slowly gives rise to a layer of fumes. The corrosive stench seeps its way through the gas mask’s filter. It feels like hell… It is hell. This is Zamaii, a township situated at the border of agricultural Agurts. Nearly 500 years old, Zamaii was once renowned for its metal, chemical, timber, and textiles industries. Now it’s a ghost town. Derelict buildings and rubble are all that remains, interrupted by the occasional ornate rooftop statue, eroding under the acid rain. For the troops stationed here, these last remnants of the township’s former glory merely provide cover. Two soldiers have taken position behind one of these monuments.
“Looks like we’ll live another day,” the older soldier says, “there are no signs of bandits."
“I’d rather go back to the farm than sit here. At least I’d be of some use,” the younger soldier complains with impatience.
The older soldier pauses before replying, “Each person has his own mission…”
“I know, I know,” the younger soldier interjects, “if it wasn’t for us, the transport route for the food crops would be open to attack. You’ve repeated it a million times over the past two days.”
To satisfy the politicians’ taste for coffee and ensure their dominion over the transport route, a sizable army unit has been stationed in Zamaii for more than four months. The endless combat has left the soldiers completely exhausted. Ironically, the month-long acid rainfall is what brings them a reprieve. The cease-fire has given veteran soldiers like the 50 year-old Bob, a chance to recuperate. Bob looks much older than his actual age. He fought his first battle when he was twenty, defending his hometown. His efforts were futile. His hometown was leveled. Since then Bob has seen his share of combat, surviving numerous battles. His experience tells him that the lightweight gas mask will prove useless against the acid rain in a prolonged conflict. Proper gas masks were in short supply on both sides since neither side anticipated the endless deluge.
“The inside of my mask smells funny,” says the young soldier as he adjusts his mask nervously.
“How long have you been at the frontlines?”
“Two days…” the rookie quickly corrects himself, “but I served at the stronghold for a month before that.”
“The funny smell means it’s time to clean the filter.”
The rookie fiddles with his mask even more.
“Don’t worry. The smell is nothing to be concerned about. Your mask should hold out for a while longer.” But it makes Bob wonder to himself, “Didn’t anyone tell you that a lightweight gas mask was only for temporary use against heavy acid rainfall? Our national military training has certainly gone downhill.”
Over the past three decades, the acidity and frequency of the rain have exceeded all projections. It’s the result of mankind’s relentless exploitation of nature. Toxic rain has hit every major city in the world. Countless animal and plant species are now extinct or heading towards extinction. Food crops and agricultural lands are now more valuable than gold. Each cup of coffee comes at the cost of untold numbers of human lives. Yet, the bitter taste of coffee remains the exclusive privilege of the rich.
“Have you ever had coffee before?” asks the rookie.
“Yes, a long time ago.” Bob answers.
“Does it taste any good?”
Bob takes a moment to remember. “It’s bitter…” He appears to be lost in thought.
The rookie continues, “I’ve never had coffee before, no one from my hometown has ever tasted it. But this bitter drink is the reason why our troops are stuck here. Don’t you think it’s odd?”
Bob doesn’t think it’s odd at all because the coffee trade is precisely the reason why he joined the fighting. Bob is past his prime and has never distinguished himself in the Agurts land forces. No one can argue with the rookie’s logic. No one wants to die for a cup of coffee. But Bob refuses to desert his post on principle. His farming roots taught him how precious the environment is, how vulnerable. It takes blood and sweat to make even a small plot of farmland thrive in nature against the elements. Bob believes that only agriculture and trade can lead a small country like Agurts towards a better future. It’s the only way for the world to be set back on the right path. It’s why Bob came to Agurts in the first place after his hometown was destroyed. As for Zamaii, where Bob is stationed, it’s the only Agurts town so far to be hit by acid rain. Agurts, the notoriously backward country somehow did not manage to exploit its fossil fuel sources. Only two portals connect it to the rest world: its southern coast along the Mediterranean Sea and Zamaii in the north. The mountains have served as a natural shield against pollution and contaminants from the outside word. The country has relied on natural sources of energy. As a result, over the past three decades, Agurts has become an oasis in a world slowly being destroyed by pollution.
After a long silence, Bob finally speaks.
“The taste of coffee.”
“But just before you said it was bitter.”
The rookie looks confused. Bob continues, “Did you work on a state farm back home?”
“Yes. How could I possibly have a farm of my own?”
There was a time when Bob dreamed of having his own farm, perhaps growing corn or some kind of fruit. He was still a teenager and his mother chastised him for his lack of ambition. She insisted that he would move to the city and become a big executive or entrepreneur. Who could have guessed how far the world would regress? Now most men could only dream of owning their own plot of farmland. Bob’s only possessions are a small bag of coffee beans and the unlit cigarette in his shirt pocket. He collected loose beans that had fallen from the trucks during transport. Bob hopes to one day be able to enjoy a sip of coffee in the countryside of Zamaii, his second home, like a rich man.
Bob carefully takes out the small bag of coffee beans to show the rookie. He looks pleased, but the rookie sees only the resignation on the older’ man’s face, the sense of futility that he’s experiencing for the first time. The relief crew arrives for the next shift. Bob quickly stashes his treasured beans. He reminds the rookie to clean his filter then hurries indoors. The rookie is unaware that the small bag of coffee beans will be with him for the rest of his life.
Bob is killed the next day, in the crossfire during a sudden enemy attack. During the post mortem, the rookie finds the bag of coffee beans and the unlit cigarette in the Bob’s pocket. As he puts them away, he begins to imagine the bitter taste of the coffee that Bob sacrificed his life to protect.
Who is useless? EditAs I am on my way back "home" the portable radio spits a politician's voice, "If you come to the age of your 40s and 50s but you hold no land or property of your own, you are useless..." It's really frustrating. Without us, a force that fights for the integrity of our national boundaries, how could these politicians afford to be so lofty and calm?
I am a soldier with no land and no property. When I see my squadmate on the tank waving his hands to me after my daily duties, I feel so grateful that I can safely return to my seat inside the tank, my temporary shelter and only "home".
DON'T JUST SIT THERE AND WAIT EditThree months after the death of Bob, the squad I belong to was sent to the building where Bob and I had had the first encounter. For three months I witnessed wars of different scales which have resulted in countless deaths for both our enemies and ourselves. I am supposed to feel numb about all these battles, but I just cannot get away from the scene with which Bob left me.
I took out the bag of coffee beans left by Bob and sat alone in the corner where he used to stay, far from any windows where the light was dim. From here I saw a broken mirror on the wall full of graffiti and, looking into that mirror, I saw an unfamiliar face that I hardly recognized as my own. The statement about "missions" made by Bob pops into my mind. What is a mission? Once a person is dead there is usually nothing left behind but ashes. Yet when Bob's life came to an end, what remained was a small bag of coffee beans. Staring at the wall as my thoughts drifted, my eyes finally adjusted to the faint light. It was then that I noticed an irregular pattern emerging from the wall, a series of scribbles like a trail of coffee beans and, nearby, Bob's signature phrase, "Each person has his own mission…"
My fingers traced the pattern and I noticed a small notebook hidden between two cracks in the wall. Peeking behind my shoulder at the soldiers in the room, I took my chance to quickly hide the notebook while none of them were paying attention. I soon found that the notebook is full of notes and drawings and, as I began to flip through and check the details of each page, a small print slipped from the notebook. The note reads: "Then I am correct that you are a curious man. In all likelihood I should be dead by now and so I leave my bag of coffee beans for you as a memento! It is my wish that you will have a real taste of coffee for me one day. I'm sure you have a lot of questions but it's difficult to explain everything here with these few words. As the diary is already in your hands, your curiosity will take you further. Everyone has to find their own mission for themselves. Even if someone exhausts all means to find their own, the key is that we should never just sit there and wait for it. " ─ Former owner of the coffee beans
After reading this note I felt a great rush of relief. I packed away the notebook and the bag, thinking to myself that I would like to understand the past of this old man.