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.