(Page 2 of 5)
“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.