We shoot at them because we are in the right and they are in the wrong
and they have to die. They shoot at us because we are in the wrong
and they are in the right and we have to die.
It has been like this for some time, as long as we can remember. This
fortification has been taken and lost and retaken. We push them back
and capture their food and ammunition and blankets. They advance with
greater numbers and we retreat again. But for six months now, in the
worst winter any of us can remember, we have been at a standstill.
The snow is far too deep in the divide to make the advance to their
ridge, and we are like sitting ducks in the long expanse between. So
we use our weapons -- almost totally ineffectual across so great a
distance -- to take token shots at them, and they do the same with us.
We have not fought for so long that it is like a lost dream. Many of us died in the last big skirmish or have been rotated away
from here since then; some of the younger ones have not seen combat at
all. When the thaw comes, we will be making it up as we go along.
I walk the ridge from sunup to lunchtime, and so does
Y. I know very little about him, not even his name. I know that he
likes to smoke, and I have come to feel that we are enjoying a
cigarette together as we walk the ridges on opposite sides of the
range. On some mornings I am late to relieve the night patrol, and
I notice that Y will wait to light up until he sees that I have taken
my station, so I have begun to extend him the same courtesy. It feels
very civilized. In the beginning Y's compatriots would
shoot at my position every once in a while, but I am in no real
danger. I have come to understand this as a kind of humor, because it
seems to coincide with the cigarettes: I am giving away my location
with the smoke.
Spring is almost here and the snow is
beginning to melt away, which means we will be seeing combat again
soon, but before that there is the issue of the body. We have been
able to see one boot for a few days now, right in the middle of the
field, and the top of the head and an elbow are beginning to emerge.
In the past there has been an understanding that we can retrieve our
dead without fear of harm, but we do not know if this one is ours. I
think that they do not know either; I point, and shrug, and I can see
Y. take a drag and shrug back at me. It could mean "why are you
leaving one of your own there?" but I have come to know Y., know his
gestures and his mannerisms. Through binoculars I can almost make
out his face, but not quite, so we communicate with our
hands. They are as mystified about the body as we are.
The body. It is beginning to infect our dreams. It is the mystery,
the uncertainty that is tearing us up. It bothers us that he is
faceless, only a bit of the top of his head showing, as if he simply
stopped and collapsed. It is the snow in the face, the smothering of
it, like being buried alive. Last night K. woke up shivering and
clawing at his cheeks. I dream of dirty snow in my mouth, I can feel
the stiff crystals full in the back of my throat, suffocating me as I
cough it up like blood. And then dawn comes and he is there again, a
little more of him this time. We are unnerved, we are dying to know if the
body is one of us. Many of us now no longer care who he is, as long
as he is gone from the field.
On this morning I am no longer afraid to die, I am no longer afraid to
be in range of their weapons. They can shoot me in the divide and
then I will fall down and someone will come retrieve me and will take
the body also, it will be resolved. But I know they won't fire. I am
halfway down the ridge on our side and I can see the commotion on
their side, they are deciding what to do. Finally Y. is sent out to
meet me. He is making his way down. The first rays of
sun are coming out over the ridge now, and my shadow dances out in
front of me like a ghost as I leap from leg to leg, crunching through
the crust layer of snow and sinking in above the knee. I imagine what
this must look like from above in the camps, two broken snow trails
making their way in a sea of white toward a dot in the center, like ships trailing a wake.
I wonder what I will say to Y. when we arrive. I wonder if he even
speaks our language. I wonder if I will help him carry the body back
to his side if it is one of theirs. I wonder if he will help if it's ours.
It won't be much, this thing between us, but it's a beginning.
I brought some cigarettes.