What could they do but bribe him? The Red Cross driver, too young, cupped his colorless hands around another cigarette and repeated his refusal to take the three women to the field. It was against regulations, he claimed, just impossible. Sixteen hours after the latest cease-fire had begun, Carmen, Marina, and Gisele had cornered him at a food distribution center because he looked vulnerable, fresh from elsewhere. Was there a truck available? The field was near a bridge, they told him — north of here, where it seemed certain (based on news from a courier) that the bodies of their men had been left in the snow. But this boy of a driver only tapped at the icy mud with his boots. “It won’t last,” he muttered, then furtively checked to see if any officials had heard and shrugged to disguise his persistent fear. “I heard guns in the hills already.”
So Carmen returned an hour later with the brandy she’d been saving for either the end of the war or the end of hope, and gave him a taste in a teaspoon, as if she were feeding medicine to a feverish son. Residents of the city (a city only in name now), they had learned how to find and exploit weakness. The twitchy Red Cross eyes settled and brightened, so she spooned him another, and he began to soften. Only liquor worked these days; she’d tried the body once or twice in moments of terror, bluntly showing her leg up to the thigh and promising something quick to a grubby soldier she thought might help her reach the coast. But no, the legs — which had held up through so many bombardments, sprints past snipers, and old razors — did not entice. The touch of flesh was too temporary, too much a reminder that nothing lasted anymore. The soldiers took it when they wanted it, anyway.
“The bottle is yours,” Carmen said, “if you take us to the field,” then added, “It’s a very good brand,” meaning it was Savic’s brand, to be drunk, he always insisted, from snifters as big as vases which all but disappeared in the cradle of his huge, stupid hands. This boy, he would have said with the dismissal of closed eyes, wouldn’t know fine brandy from turpentine.
When the driver agreed the next day, assuring the women he had worked it out, Carmen began to reconsider. It was ludicrous, using the bottle to find him. She had seen enough irony in this war to believe all of it had been planned somehow as a tactic of terror, but this tactic seemed too much. Too close to what remained of the heart. And what was she expecting? Resurrection? Identification would only confirm what she had known too long. He would be lying there like a butchered steer, as hard as freezer meat, in pieces maybe, and then what would she do? Force out more tears from her little fountain of grief, dry now for months. Bury him with the fedora he’d left at her apartment in that last ugly week when he’d volunteered to defend nothing more than simplistic ideas of nation and pride. What was a country, she’d screamed at him, except a man’s backyard lined with No Trespassing signs? But it would purge her, it would help her become human again — so said brittle Marina, who believed so much in Jesus one felt sorry for her.
In the chill of dawn, the three women met the driver near the post office rubble, where letters and packages still lay between stones, emerging from the melting snow like some perverse blooming. Everywhere the warmer days were revealing what had been so helpfully covered by the winter. The scorched roofs became black again, craters opened, and the remnants returned — a wristwatch, five cubes of chewing gum still wrapped, a torn umbrella, the unclaimed bone of a child’s finger.
They climbed into the back of the Red Cross truck, carrying small bags of lunch and the knickknacks they hoped to bury. The interior smelled of disinfectant, of cigarettes. The metal seats offered only the ache of ice. Underneath their unwashed winter coats, they wore clothing for the dead — Carmen in Savic’s favorite dress, the one he always begged her to wear without a bra, and now much too thin for this cold; Marina in jeans and a sweater, wearing her brother’s skiing cap and a large cross around her neck, folding and unfolding her spotted hands; Gisele bundled up, zipped up, buttoned up with all the clothing she could wear, not a bit of wife showing.
It was Gisele, nearly sixty and the oldest of these women, who had suggested they find a Red Cross driver because their trucks were surely more reliable than anything else. Practical, religious with her duties of survival, she was here to finally end a marriage, nothing more. She would identify the old fool, sign any necessary papers, and let someone else find a shovel. Not like Carmen, who seemed on the verge of blubbering at any moment, whose lipstick glowed as bright as a whore’s, whose hair was done up for sex, whose legs were ridiculous. Stockings in this weather! What a waste this grooming was. Smearing on lipstick that had so many good uses — a pen, an ointment for sores, glue. Still trying to seduce this man of hers, this married man, who was now unmarried, unliving, an icicle, the same as her own husband. Stockings! It was women like Carmen who made married life such a farce, even in a war. But at least she’d had the sense to use the liquor, and thankfully the driver was young enough to think it worthwhile.
The sky slipped by in the small back window, a yellowish tint of certain snow. And certain delays, Gisele knew, for supplies coming by plane, already overdue. The warmth of spring promised more of these flights, but like insects, the soldiers would begin to swarm again. You won the war by surviving it. Her grandmother, a survivor of other troubles, went on to use the phrase to manage her post-war life, and now Gisele had sworn herself to the advice: anticipate everything, think the way a general would and plan every hour, ration food even when abundant, collect what others consider junk, and avoid disease. This last point moved her down the bench, away from Marina, the little bird of a woman with the spotted hands who had begun to gab.
“Milo and I used to come this way for skiing,” Marina said, trying to manage cheerfulness. She had small bones and an angular face that could turn severe under thought. Her dark hair was cut like a helmet. “The way he hunched — way up on the slope, you could always spot him.”
“Have either of you been to this field, know of the bridge?” Gisele asked. “I don’t trust this boy to find it.”
“He used to pack a silver flask in his pocket. I have it in my bag.”
“What does it help to get sentimental,” Gisele said, shaking her head.
Marina leaped up, knocking off her cap when her head banged the ceiling. “I want to remember him skiing,” she yelled.
“I’ve never been that far north,” Carmen offered, “but the driver’s map shows the bridge. We used to ski up in the hills ourselves, above the river.” She watched Marina settle back into her seat. She recognized the rage pulsing beneath her skin, beneath her bluish hands and arms spotted with scabs and sores. At times it was frightening to know that her own anger had disappeared months ago, that she was as calm as a surgeon when faced with the grotesque. She had helped scoop up intestines scattered across a roadway like streamers dropped in a parade, she’d touched skin made into paper from God-knows-what disease, she’d seen insanity take hold like a vine … but you reinvent yourself. How adaptable we humans are, Savic used to joke, leading her into another rental car, another hotel room that smelled of the unknown.
In her bag was that first note from Savic, folded and torn, the one he’d written at the bank where she worked in the loan department, pretending it was a hold-up threat: all your money or dinner tonight. She’d almost pressed the alarm. But now she could not picture such giddiness, only three years past. It was the same impossibility of imagining the satisfaction of too much wine and pasta when you haven’t eaten for days. The torture of the opposite, the fact that it could exist. The Hegelian progress of the soul. To imagine that she’d once been irritated by so many small things — by lovers of Jesus, by the smell of gasoline, by the sound of smacking lips. How much privilege was contained in irritation! She tried to remember Savic eating spaghetti, his lips shiny with grease, sloppy as a dog’s, the sauce always dripping onto his sweater. But she felt only hollowness, an ache that started everywhere.
“He was a graceful skier,” Marina said. “Not one of those bullies who come crashing down the slopes. They started this war.”
“Skiers!” Gisele bellowed.
“I mean their type,” Marina said quietly. The bullies, the impatient, the fat businessmen — they all had a hand in it somehow, conspiring together. Marina was sure of this. The pleasant ones, like Milo, got trampled and used. He always had a little touch of the feminine about him, which she loved. The way he giggled, for instance, in that shy way that shook his shoulders and reddened his cheeks. How he cried at the end of any film. Her instinct had always been to protect him, but she could do nothing about the draft. It swept men up like a farming machine. Their parents hoped the army might toughen him up, expecting only police actions on the border to quiet the occasional skirmish — distant disputes from a few rural areas. It would all be over before they even handed him a gun. By the time of his death, of course, the army had disintegrated into packs of lunatics and drunks who fired at anything, at each other, but she didn’t tell her parents, who no longer ventured out, who no longer wanted to know.
The news of Milo’s death came on the day she met Carmen and Gisele, all of them trying to verify that the hotel still had running water. She’d never waited for the courier, considering it bad luck, but she’d forgotten that he often came to the hotel, where the news cameras were nothing more than motion detectors, blood detectors. And suddenly the lights were dazzling and there he was, a boy not much older than Milo. He proudly described how he’d weaved his way through mortar and rifle fire to brings his news and the crumpled list, which he carried as if it were nothing more than a relay baton. A bridge, he announced with more reserve into a cluster of microphones, had collapsed from enemy fire, as quickly as a toy; around it, there had been a field so red it looked like candy. He was a boy, using boy words.
But his list was right there, so bright in the lights, its closeness too tempting. She could not resist. She leaned eagerly across the table with everyone else, her eyes rapid, finding guilty relief in so many other names — his was not there, not there. The sudden release of joy made her sleepy. She backed away for a moment, but then was pulled toward it again; she needed to verify the absence. And on her second scan, when the eyes moved more slowly, she discovered, halfway down, what was not possible. The ink on the page was like acid thrown in her face. His name blinded her. She collapsed on the carpet. She lost her sight for at least an hour, perhaps more, while the hotel swarmed in her ears. She realized later, of course, that it was Milo’s way of preventing something stupid and harmful. He was there, just beside her, keeping her blind until she was calm.
The truck slowed, growling into a lower gear, then abruptly stopped, jerking the women sideways. The back doors were flung open to reveal the driver standing before a road of mud that separated smooth white fields. He was shaking his head. His breath came in nervous puffs. “Mines,” he said. “I can’t go any further. The whole road is mined.”
The women did not move. Disappointment was always expected. But it was difficult to reconcile the sudden vision of the white fields with buried mines.
“Can’t you go around them?” Carmen said, knowing that he couldn’t, but merely making some effort to push against another obstacle, if only to ward off the cold.
“The truck would get stuck in this snow. There’s no telling how far the mines go, anyway. We’ll have to turn back.”
Gisele ambled to the backdoor and peered out, like a bear being released from its cage. “How do you know it’s mined?” she suggested.
“There’s a sign,” the boy said, moving closer. “You can read it yourself. There’s no other route.”
“It might be a bluff,” Gisele said and hopped onto the road.
The boy, exasperated, not expecting her to leave the truck, glared at her as if she had suggested that the world itself was a bluff. “Goddamn, I’m not going to test it.”
“We don’t need to worry,” Marina said. “My brother is a saint.”
They had all climbed out now, anxious to feel the depth of the country. A light spring snow was falling, wide flakes that descended so slowly as to make one feel drawn down, sleepy. The trees and the muddied road were becoming ghosts of themselves. The women carefully stepped to the front of the truck, past its big red cross that blared like a billboard for desperation, and saw the small wooden sign, pounded into the mud at an angle. It read just what the boy said it did: Mines Beyond This Point.
“You see? Who’d be bluffing anyway?” the boy explained, shrugging dramatically and fumbling for another cigarette. “There’s no shortage of mines. They sprinkle them around here like seeds.”
Carmen found herself tempted to run past it; she mistrusted its obviousness and felt her muscles tense, her blood ready to act. It would only take some small jolt in the brain. The same feeling when she stood atop some tall building, looking down. The idea of throwing herself over the edge seemed so maddeningly easy. It was not about death, but about defying it — an impulse to challenge gravity and reason and every earthly law. To get this far and be stopped by something she couldn’t even see! But the snow kept her still. She turned her head upward, squinting. She had to admire the steadfast stupidity of nature, trying to cover up these petty human arguments like a patient aunt. At least there was the joy of the hills in their white fur, of looking into a cease-fire sky, the gentle sting on her face.
She and Savic had skied in the same hills, striding along so confidently with their snacks and Thermos of tea. Savic was always so indignant about the “idiots on the money slopes” and insisted on these cross-country outings. Even after she reminded him that they enjoyed them better in memory, in heated rooms. But he was always chasing after solitude.
She remembered the day they’d found an unfamiliar trail, a gradual slope they kept following upward, while he convinced her they’d find a grand, unpopulated view, then the reward of a long glide down. The lure of height, what millennia of idiocy it had led to. By the time they reached the top they were exhausted, heavy with sweat. The day was settling into afternoon. The wind there was too strong for skiing. They could only remove their skis and walk, sinking up to their knees in snow. It seemed possible that they might not find their way back before nightfall. Carmen saw the fear in Savic’s eyes, in his face gone rigid and blank in an attempt to hide it. But his voice betrayed him, barely rising above the wind. His fear of tragedy and having caused it. At dinner parties, after the usual round-table recounting of some brush with death or accident, pessimistic Savic told everyone, in his brisk and confident way, that the average struggle — his definition of mediocrity — was nothing but the continual avoidance of tragedy. Television is such entertainment for the masses because they can happily verify that tragedies, real or fictional, are striking others regularly, but never themselves. He was always so pleased to point this out, then take a big gulp of wine.
Finally, two younger skiers discovered them and guided them down, a huge embarrassment for Savic. When they arrived back at their car near dusk, weak and shivering, they held each other for a long time without speaking. Glazed by tears, Savic’s eyes were like glass. Like tiny, brittle ornaments, she remembered. “Forgive me,” he said. How was it that he could volunteer for tragedy two years later, when he was ten years past the draft? What had all their struggles against the future, their countless efforts to arrange meetings, their hours of assurances amounted to? She despised politics. She despised the arrogance of men, who blundered up hills without thinking how to get down. There was really nothing wrong with mediocrity. Let the boy take them back. She could not face the possibility of seeing Savic crumpled in the snow today.
The shouts startled them. It was the boy, gesturing violently and swearing at Marina. She stood with the stiffened posture of a child who has found something unpleasant. Her hand bulged black with a pistol. “Why can’t you believe in these men?” she said softly.
“You can’t be serious,” the boy said.
“Don’t you think they might have suffered for us?” Her voice was rising. Her face narrowed, darkened. “Don’t you think their deaths might be important?”
“What do you want me to do?” The boy extended his hands in plea.
“You doubt like Thomas. My brother is guiding us. You must believe in him.”
“I can’t drive through the mines,” the boy stated.
Marina was not moving. “We can do anything we want.”
“They might be everywhere. I can’t drive around them. Even if I did, we’d get stuck in the fucking snow.” He edged toward her. “I’m just a volunteer, okay? I’m as scared as you are. Please just hand me the gun.”
“This is salvation.”
“You can all come back when the road is cleared and the war’s over — ”
“I could shoot your foot,” Marina said, lowering the gun and making the boy step back. “I could shoot your palm. I could crucify you with bullets.” The boy’s hands began to shake and color inflamed his cheeks.
“Listen to me, Marina,” Gisele said, removing her hood. “Do you see that there is a safety catch? You cannot shoot that gun if the catch is still on. All right? Check the safety and switch it. All right? Now you can shoot the gun.”
The boy’s hands continued to plead.
“Please drive us around the mines,” Marina said.
Violence and fear had sickened them, Carmen thought, fevers that drove them beyond comprehension. But she found herself incapable of interfering. Thoughts of Savic had clogged things. A madness of indifference.
“Don’t be stupid with this!” the boy yelled. “Let’s be calm. Let’s talk about it. Can’t someone help me?”
Gisele could see that this diseased woman with her ugly hands was going to relent, was going to hand the gun to the boy and they would return to the city, and the boy would have a story for his Red Cross friends. The dismissal of her husband delayed. You could count on nothing anymore — all of this cheap talk and inaction. So much hurry for this waste of time. She was tired of these people. She was suddenly hungry. She wanted to be back in her apartment, where she had only herself to rely on. But her hunger brought an awful thought, a stinging flush across her back: she had not hidden the loaf of bread or the Red Cross cans. The children of thieves had so often wriggled in, through the holes torn by shells. The boards she’d nailed were too easily pushed away. Surely they could make it back by afternoon!
The little bird startled her. Marina aimed the gun at the sky with outstretched arms, closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger twice. Two pops — each time she ducked her head. The boy jumped back, slipped, and fell. He looked as if he were about to cry. The snow kept falling, undisturbed. Marina lowered her arms, bewildered at what she’d done. Quiet again, as if the gun had been an apparition. The boy slowly rose, brushing his knees.
Then a delayed echo — two muffled snaps from the hills, like the splitting of wood. They looked toward them, not quite sure if they should be afraid. More rhythmic snaps, then a crackling that was surely rifles, machine guns. They all knew the sound.
“What are they doing?” Marina said. “It’s a cease-fire.”
Gisele replaced her hood as if it were a helmet. “Are you that stupid? Their promises are broken like eggs.”
“This one,” Carmen began, “I thought this one might last.”
The boy was indignant. “She is responsible!”
“I’m sorry,” Marina said, gently placing the pistol in the snow.
Then they heard the second sound, the one that produced instant terror, the unmistakable thump of a mortar launching its shell. Moments later, well behind the truck, the field rose into the shape of a tree, then collapsed.
“Can’t they see the goddamn cross?” the boy screamed. He scrambled up into the truck’s cab, and the women followed him, falling on top of one another. Another eruption, closer, and a shower of mud. “They’re shelling the fucking road.” He shifted quickly, farting in nervousness, moaning. The truck lurched forward, down the embankment, and into the field of snow.
“Look what you’ve done! Please, no mines,” the boy shouted into the windshield. The truck fishtailed, smacking away drifts. The engine roared like an animal.
Gisele, nearest the passenger door, pushed her head out the window, watching for the next shell, gauging their chances. It came in the road, just to their right, so close that the truck shuddered and her teeth ached. The windshield had cracked.
“Oh, fuck, was that a mine? I can’t do this. They’re killing us!” The boy’s neck grew purple. He had wrapped his arms around the steering wheel and was spitting every curse he knew. Carmen clutched his thigh, squeezing it only from a need to keep him from panic. She forced out the inane: “Keep it steady, we’ll be all right, we’re getting through.” Next to her, Marina continued to murmur the Lord’s Prayer, over and over, rubbing the cross at her neck.
“The mortar,” Gisele shouted, her head still out the window. “They’re chasing us with it.”
“Games,” the boy screamed. “It’s a cease-fire! It’s Red Cross!” His voice was hoarse, strained to its limits.
“Can you zigzag?” Gisele said. “Something?”
The truck swerved, shuddering again as if it were coming apart, but the boy seemed to be regaining his senses. He frantically rubbed the fogged windshield.
“We have to get back to the road, okay? Snow’s too deep. Can you see the road?”
“What about the mines?” Carmen said.
“The fucking road, can you see it? Too much goddamn fog on the window! Don’t breathe!”
“I see the road,” Gisele said, “just over there. We’re past the sign now.”
“Do you see tracks? Recent tracks? Anything?” He continued to rub the windshield in quick, desperate motions.
“I think so,” Gisele said, “but I’m not sure. The snow covers it.”
“We’re going back on it,” the boy said. “All right? It’s the only thing. Tracks mean no mines, right?”
The truck swung around to the road, and as it bounced up the embankment, the women squeezed hands to brace for the death that would rip up through the seat and split them apart. But there was nothing. They skidded to a stop, and the boy cut the engine. Fat stars of snow collected on the windshield. They listened for guns or shells, but the hills were quiet. Filling the cab was the odor of the boy’s urine, which Carmen found crazily thrilling to smell. With hands that shook violently, the boy managed to insert a cigarette into his mouth but did not make the effort to light it. “My pants,” he finally said, straining his face to hold back tears.
“My God,” Carmen said, “you deserve ten cases of brandy.”
“I’m very embarrassed.”
“We were lucky,” Gisele said, pointing at the tracks they’d cut into the snow. “A frozen lake. You see there’s water at the edge. I thought you had a map.”
“Gisele,” Marina exclaimed, “you’re bleeding. Your forehead.”
Gisele touched her brow, bright red with blood above an eyebrow. Marina quickly dabbed it, then touched her own palms. “A sacrifice,” she said. “We should all touch it.” The boy brought disinfectant and a bandage from the back of the truck while Marina extracted a small piece of shrapnel from beneath Gisele’s rough skin.
“I was thinking about chairs and tables,” Carmen said, starting to laugh. “Can you believe it? When we came back on the road, I was thinking about polishing furniture. I’ve lost control of my head.”
Marina began to suck at the scabs on her hands. “You’re laughing at me.”
“No,” Carmen said. “Antiques. Savic and I both loved them.”
“What’s an antique,” Gisele said to the window, blandly repeating the latest city joke. “Anything that isn’t firewood.”
“It was a test,” Marina insisted. “The mortar, the ice. I think it was a test of our will.” Her own was strengthening. Her brother’s voice was guiding her. He had urged her, whispering, to take her father’s gun, to shoot it. Since he’d made her blind that one day, he was appearing regularly — his profile in the jaggedness of broken glass, his eyes clearly etched in a crumbling wall. She had not told anyone, especially not her parents, for fear of being diagnosed with war shock, then ignored or insulted. Of course, the visions others had of Mary and Jesus were not questioned. Crowds gathered for them, settling around sites as if waiting for a film. They were especially popular now with the cease-fire. But she didn’t go, afraid of the violence that crowds usually brought upon themselves. She preferred her own private visions. On the surface of a photograph of Milo, taken two years ago in their summer cottage, his eyes had actually wept. Tears like flecks of silver. She felt the moisture in the scrapbook. A week ago, near a fire created for warmth, after she’d carelessly burned herself on the hand, he had appeared for an instant, his face a blur. The next night she touched the burning end of a twig to her palm, hoping to see him again. The pain made her cry, but she did it again and again, pressing the twig to each knuckle, each joint. It felt like confession, then something close to pleasure. When later she found the courage to hold a glowing ember in her fist, she almost fainted, but her brother appeared — that same slouch, a pale image at the edge of her vision, gone if she turned her head. He was teasing her! Her hands blistered for days, but how wonderful to see him.
For the next hour, as the truck passed slowly through small muddy villages, no one spoke. The driver had decided that there was less risk in continuing if the cease-fire held, if the women promised not to act like fools. The ice might not hold up for a return crossing, and certainly the Red Cross outfit at their destination could give him another, safer route. This place might offer other opportunities, too, a chance to work another exchange, to transport certain goods or news back to the city for a modest profit. The camera crews were always willing to pay, he’d heard. Why not take advantage of what he’d been given? Anxious to find the field, he began to whistle.
The women remained in the cab, pressed together like officials viewing the results of a storm. Around them, defeat was thickening, clotting. A large farmhouse slumped toward its middle, a ragged hole torn into its roof — unlivable, empty. Cooking fires burned timidly in the rubble. Lined with snow, craters made big soup bowls. The white humps of cattle were scattered like deflated balloons. She could remember driving past such farms with Savic at condescending speeds one summer, singing, silly as school children. Their instant ridicule of the country was like a drug. It was nothing more than a trail of abandonment, they used to say, of relics that sadly rotted and disappeared, a little more each year. What had war done except hasten the decay?
Women and children, seeing the bright red cross, scurried alongside the truck, shouting for food or fuel. Carmen reached into her knapsack and tossed out half of what she had brought. Their dirty hands were clichés, juggling and clutching the bread. The war handed out these scenes so easily, like a nature program on the savagery of the Serengeti. They’d all been reduced to instinct.
When she reached into her bag again, she saw that Savic’s note — the start of everything that had become so important — was missing. Surely it was still in there, surely. But no, it must have fluttered away with the bread. She looked behind them. The dark hollow frame of an overturned bus, stripped of its paint, suddenly reminded Carmen of the whale skeleton she and Savic had once laughed about in a museum, an expensive vacation made with so much whispered preparation. What jokes they’d made, what wit. How clever they’d been to keep themselves from discovery. There, near the bus, a fleck of white. Was it? She shouted at the children, still chasing, to pick it up, then asked the driver to stop. But he only shook his head, afraid to get mobbed and commandeered.
The boy was the first to spot the field, pointing out the few dozen dark lines forming orderly rows in the snow, like the score of a game tallied on paper. It wasn’t really a field as the women had pictured it: some idyllic space bordered by a stone wall, something worth defending. It was simply a small clearing atop a muddied hill. In the distance, visible through the splintered trees, the bridge had been reduced to two blackened nubs.
They drove up as far as the road had been cleared, then walked the rest of the way through thick slush. Other women were moving slowly among the rows, stooping to inspect, as if shopping at an oddly placed market. But then it became evident — someone stiffened, lingered too long, and finally collapsed onto her knees, her face the color of dirtied snow.
They were given handkerchiefs scented with perfume by a solemn man who, only a few years before, might have collected tickets for a concert, a play. Gisele entered the rows nervously, staggering a little. Her eyes could not move fast enough. Her heart was wild, like a bird trapped under her coat. She wanted it over quickly. She wanted to return as soon as possible to the apartment, where she would quietly declare a new life. Where she would continue to bar the doors against this nonsense of a war.
But she could see that it would be difficult. The men at her feet were misshapen, twisted up. Some were not whole. The headless had been given blankets to cover the empty space, as if it were indecent to be here without a head. What could one feel but disgrace — the disgrace of living. A sullen dog zigzagged, no doubt made dizzy by the smell of flesh, but Gisele could not hate it. The dogs, for once, were not so stupid.
His ear stopped her. The lobes had always been as big as pendants. And there was the left one, hardened, cracked like clay. He was lying on his side, the way he always slept. He was wearing what must have passed for a uniform, a brown coat and trousers, soiled with mud. She was thankful that his head and limbs were intact. Thankful, too, that she could not determine how he had died. Pressing the handkerchief into her nose, she stooped to inspect. The skin was greenish and loose, but she could see that it was his mouth.
The Red Cross driver plucked the last cigarette from his pack and lit it with steady hands, staring at what was left of the bridge. He was planning the next trip. He would have to haul something in both directions to make it worthwhile — passengers, food, cigarettes, booze. A delivery service. A Red Cross for luxury items. He’d have to find other routes. It could work out very nicely if he were careful. Why not take advantage of the situation? He watched the women shuffle and slosh through this ugly graveyard, resolved to collect a second fee for returning them, then lifted the bottle of brandy to his lips.
Marina crouched at the edge of the clearing, clutching snow in both hands, enduring the ache. Like the women who’d entered the tomb of Jesus, she’d come to this field to satisfy her own selfish need for grief. But how could she have understood this without making the journey? It was all a test of faith. There was no need to search for Milo’s body because she would not find it. The absence of the body proves the ascent.
But the grief came, anyway. She fell back into the snow, her hands numb. She took off his cap and pressed it against her nose and lips, trying to extract a scent, a taste. She worried that it might be selfish to remember too much — the grace of him living, the beautiful thing he was on skis.
During bombardments, when her thoughts bulged into nightmarish proportions, Carmen could convince herself that the acts she’d committed with Savic had caused the war. It was the same kind of stupid logic and superstition that men displayed at sporting events, but she couldn’t help believing that the war was their punishment.
Now she could only think that Savic’s wife might be here too, searching with the terror of finding him, trembling in that last calm space before the rise of the anti-world, the future one cannot imagine or accept. Had this wife trembled, too, when she’d sensed the marriage going wrong? Savic assumed she hadn’t known. Certainly he never told her. They’d spoken so little of her that, shockingly, Carmen could not remember her name. A blank, like a field of snow.
She had seen a picture of her once, when she was looking through Savic’s wallet, in that way of wanting to inspect something of his. Their affair had of course prevented the availability of his bookcases or the arrangement of furniture in his study, the sorts of details, in love’s delirium, that lend authenticity to the body, ground it to something real. In the picture his wife was pushing a bicycle beneath a canopy of trees. Plump in that way of wives who seem satisfied but not overtly happy. The plumpness, the unattractive calves gave Carmen some relief (as if she’d been expecting a beauty queen) but she couldn’t avoid the sting of jealousy — that his wife was always there, carefully contained and preserved, pressed against his ass. She wondered if he had died with her there in his pocket, taking with him things he was really defending — that bicycle and the trees and her tentative smile in the stippled light — now another kind of anti-world, immense and unattainable.
But he wasn’t here. Not even the mangled could possibly be him. He was on some other hill, near another bridge. He was simply gone in the same way that lovers disappear, no trail, no forwarding address, leaving nothing but this tent of hope that slowly sags and falls. The chill of afternoon had settled, and Carmen suddenly worried that their driver had stranded them, left without warning. Before her, the women continued to trudge from heap to heap. She looked for the boy, but instead spotted Gisele, recognizable by the bulk of her coat. The poor woman was in the middle of the grid on her knees, sobbing, cowled head lifted skyward, her mouth open and stretched. At this distance, it could be mistaken for laughing. And Marina, so simple, was outside the rows on her back, no longer searching. She held her brother’s cap and just lay quietly in the snow, almost like a child making an angel.
Then she saw the driver, at the far edge, leaning against one of the splintered trees. His face was a boyish bloom of red. He was holding Savic’s brandy at his hip, practicing a diffident bravado. Carmen could feel misery growing inside her again, like crystals of ice. But she would not let it remain. The dress she wore, Savic’s favorite, was making her terribly cold, but she lifted it to mid-thigh, just in case — she forced herself to laugh — he was somewhere watching. After a moment, she began striding toward the boy. She would ask him how much more brandy and fuel it would take to reach the coast.