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.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.