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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.