Monday, June 25, 2012

The Taste of Coffee

   The 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 sign 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 worrying. The smell is nothing to worry about. Your mask should hold out for a while longer.” But it makes Bob wonder, “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.

   “It’s fragrant.”
   “What is?”
   “The taste of coffee.”
   “But you said it’s bitter just now.”
   The rookie looks confused. Bob continues, “Did you work on a state farm back home?”
   “Yes. How could I possibly have farm of my own?”
   “That’s true.”

   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 would have guessed how the world has regressed – now most men dream of owning a 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 taste of the coffee that Bob sacrificed his life to protect.