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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.