The mouth of the large gray cargo plane hung open like that of a great shark. Within were the many bags, stacked in rows, all oblong, all sealed, each numbered and tagged. The receiving sergeant stood atop the loading bay, dressed in fatigues with a clipboard in hand. He was nervously scanning the runway and buildings beyond. Young Nick Jordon stood below him, at the foot of the deck, behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He wore faded blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and a pair of Nike tennis shoes. His blond hair was still cropped short and glistened in the morning sunlight.
The sergeant dropped the clipboard to his side, his cold gray eyes fell upon Nick’s.
“The money?” he asked sharply. “Do you have the money?”
“Where is he?” was Nick’s reply.
The sergeant motioned his head to the top of the freight deck. A lone bag lay separated from the others. Nick lifted on his toes and peered up the freight deck at it.
“The money,” the sergeant insisted. “This is deep shit, man. Really deep.”
Nick pulled a thick envelope from his shirt pocket and handed it to him.
“Fifteen hundred dollars.”
The sergeant looked in the envelope, thumbing through the bills. He scanned the airfield once again. Then, stepping up the brief incline, he dragged the bag down to the edge of the loading deck.
“Are you sure it’s him?” asked Nick.
“Read the tag.”
The sergeant jumped off the edge of the loading bay while Nick studied the bag. John C. Henley was printed clearly on a small tag attached near the head of the bag.
“Come’on, let’s go,” the sergeant pressed. He had already pulled the bag halfway off the cargo bay.
Together they lifted the bag and carried it to Nick’s sedan. Quickly and carefully they loaded it into the rear seat and covered it beneath a canvas tarp. It was difficult getting it in – the body was long and awkwardly cramped in the small space with legs propped to one side.
“Now get out of here,” the sergeant ordered. “Quickly.”
Nick opened the driver’s door and climbed into the seat. The sergeant was already back on the loading dock watching for movement across the airfield.
“I don’t know you,” he said.
Nick raised his left hand and sped off. The MP at the gate saluted as his sedan passed. He entered the freeway ramp, motored up the northbound lanes, and settled in for a long ride.
It was not long before the mile markers began to flashed by, and as they mounted, he became absorbed in thought; sucked into a place in the past. He remembered the hillside in the Balkans overlooking Gorazde. He could see now as he did then, the narrow canyon below him, darkened with black shale and green furs; the white rushing water of the stream beneath the iron bridge, and the oiled road winding up the canyon along the stream to Sarajevo forty-miles away. He could smell the oiled road, and where the road came up near him and over the gap in the ridge, he saw a military truck with munitions and supplies going slowly upgrade. He could see Gorazde — a city of toy-like, mud-colored buildings with red tile roofs, wedged in the center of a bowl-shaped valley. It was surrounded by steep, tree-covered hills, and through it ran the Drina River, deep blue-green, with a current moving swift and sure. The sound of heavy artillery shells split the sky overhead, each time whistling down upon the city, ending in the same, inevitable percussion and plume of yellow smoke. And there was that smell he remembered, a smell of sulfur and dust.
God-damned Serbs, he thought. Why couldn’t they just let go? Why couldn’t they be done with it? NO, death had to be slow. The pain had to be long and crippling. They took pleasure in the pain. Yes, long drawn-out pain, that’s what the Serbs liked.
Nick’s sedan pulled off the road abruptly in time to see the sun set across the pacific. He had come a long distance from the airfield in Long Beach, up the pacific coast, past Ragged Point, Gorda, and Lucia, through the Pacific Valley, and to a place near the mouth of the Big Sur River. It was evening now, the sky dark, and dew drops began gathering on the windshield. He stretched out in the front seat of the car using his jacket as a pillow. With legs extended, feet propped to one side, he tried desperately to rest; but his mind was still spinning with thoughts of the Balkans. All that had happened in the past nine months was too much for him to consume. It was too much for anyone to consume. He had seen heaven and hell, and had come back again. And he was not satisfied that he had come back alone. He would never be satisfied with that. He listened to the crashing waves outside. To the south he could see the vague, white outline of the coast. It pleased him to know where he was, that he was home, but it did not calm him.
As he lay quiet, thinking, the body of John Henley lay likewise, stiff and motionless in the back seat beneath the tarp. Nick lifted his head and looked over the backrest into the rear seat. He studied the body momentarily; the tarp was tucked in on both sides revealing its shape. The body was very long and cramped and awkward in the small space. Nick dropped his chin upon his folded arms which he laid upon the backrest, and he gazed thoughtfully at the bag.
Now in his mind he flashed back, to a cafe in Gorazde. He was sitting with John at a table and the midmorning sun had come over the buildings and was warming his sunburned face; the light from it gleamed off his fair, sun-streaked hair. Down the street people gathered in the marketplace, trying to assume some semblance of a normal life.
“There is no such thing as a ‘safe haven,'” John spoke loudly, his eyes, piercing blue, staring intently at Nick’s. “Look at Zepa and Srebrenica, now conquered towns, ‘cleansed’ of history and memory. The U.N…. Boutros Boutros Ghali, Perry, they’re all full of shit. They tied their own hands and the hands of those who want to defend themselves. They’re frightened by scarecrows of their own making. And Mladic loves it. He loves them. They make the war easy for him. The U.N. makes the cleansing easy.”
“Military instructors, John. Remember why we’re here,” Nick replied.
“This could be viewed as desertion you know.”
“They can f—ing call it what they want.” John took a drag off his cigarette. “Haven’t you ever wanted to do one thing in your life that would make a difference? I mean really make a difference? This is our chance, right here. Look at them, go ahead, turn your head and look at them.”
Nick turned to his side and saw Nadia, young and slender, her hair long and brown, standing against the wall, arm around Zajko who sat in a chair, his left arm wrapped around her leg. They were young, very young, not even twenty-years-old. They were in fact the perfect picture of two young people in love. Marriage was all they wanted, in Sarajevo, with their family, and for their child to be born safe and free. Then they could die, they said. Yes, Nick thought, the perfect picture of two young lovers, two young and stupid lovers.
“We can make a difference,” said Nick. “That’s why we’re here. But not like this.”
“Look at the progress we’ve made. They’re good soldiers, the instruction is paying off. All we need is a little more time with them. That’s all I’m asking, that you give it a little more time. They’ll be ready to fight.”
“No it’s not.”
“Putting a gun in a fifteen-year-old’s hand and expecting him to defend his country is comic. You and I have been trained to fight. Shit, we’re among the best. It’s a crime to expect a child to kill.”
“In war there are no children.”
“Only fifteen-year-olds, uh? Sorry Nick. I’ve had enough of the U.N. and their shit, their empty promises and empty threats. They’ve gotten all they’re gonna get out of me.”
“You can fool someone once, maybe even twice, but not a third time. Nobody is going to believe you a third time. I’d be a sucker if I did, like the rest of these poor bastards.”
“Okay then, who do you side with?”
“Listen, the U.N. sanctioned this war by failing to fight. The U.N. sanctioned the cleansing by imposing the arms embargo. They’ve betrayed those who truly want peace. They’ve abandoned those who want to protect their families. I’m suppose to side with a group like that?”
“Who then?” Nick insisted.
John looked over at Nadia and Zajko.
“With them,” he said. “They are who I side with.”
Nadia was now sitting in Zajko’ lap, both arms draped around his neck, her neck laying against his. He was caressing her back, and she holding him closely. Then she pressed her lips to his forehead, her fingers gently stroke the hair at the nape of his neck. She was an oddity alright, Nick thought. They were right about that. Here in Bosnia, to be nineteen years old and not married, to be pregnant and not married, made them both an oddity. Young people got married here very often because of the war. One can loose one’s life so easily, any day, and because of that young people were getting married all the time.
“They’re dead,” John said. “If we don’t help them, they’re as good as dead.”
“Hey, I came to fight those Serb bastards too. I’m as pissed with the system as you are. Together we can make a difference, not just for them…..” He motioned his head toward Nadia and Zajko, “but for all these people.”
John listened. He took another drag from his cigarette and exhaled the smoke skyward.
“What does it matter?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“In the big scheme of things, what does it matter what we do? This war isn’t going to end. Not in our lifetimes. Anyone who believes that is lying to themselves. Only the gas smugglers will win in the end. Besides, Zajko is right. This place is ripe for a crushing. If we stay, they die. If we leave, they live. That’s the truth. That’s how simple it is.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Not the extra guns on the hills? Not the reports of troop movements? You don’t believe the trenches of uncovered bodies? If nothing more, believe your gut. I’ve learned to trust mine, and the premonitions of others, especially Zajko’s. He was right about Srebrenica.”
“The U.N. isn’t going to let Gorazde fall,” he said.
“Get it in your head, man,” replied John. “Karadzic doesn’t give a shit about safe havens. Neither does Boutros Boutros and the rest of those pigs for that matter. Mladic is probably sitting up there on that hillside looking down at us right now.”
Nick gazed up at the mountains, then down the street at the people gathered in the marketplace.
“You’re going then?”
“I’m going. Whether you go or not Nick, I’m going. I want you along. I need you along. But I’m going. ”
John looked over at Zajko and Nadia.
“They said they’d pay you, but I know you don’t want money. Look at them,” he said. “Look at them, Nick. They’re Muslims. Remember that…. How can you not want to help them?”
Nick shrugged his shoulders.
“Just to Sarajevo. Three days and back,” said John. “Then we’ll continue with this bullshit. I promise you that.”
A loud, squealing sound broke their conversation. It was the whistle of an incoming artillery shell, from the west, over the chapel. It came in and slammed into the crowd at the marketplace down the street. The impact rocked the ground where John and Nick sat. There was a loud burst and a bellow of yellow smoke that carried quickly downwind. The sound and spattering of shrapnel whocking into the brick wall over their heads sent dust and debris tumbling from the rooftops onto their table.
Immediately there was screaming, and moaning, and air raid sirens. There were those trying to give aide to the wounded, and those trying to figure out which of the wounded were worth giving aide. John and Nick left their chairs and ran down the street to help. The mortar shell had landed squarely in the crowd near a food store and a vegetable stand. A man with no arm came stumbling up to them, the blood gushing from his stump. He had the look of shock on his face. Then he ran away before they could help him. There was crushed and splintered wood littered across the street. Hands and feet were tossed among odd bits of clothing, fresh vegetables strewn amid bodies, wet scraps of flesh were clinging to the stone walls of nearby buildings, and bright red blood was everywhere. In the center, Nick saw a twisted bicycle and the torso of a young women. She was still moving, but her legs were gone. He wanted to reach her, but there were others who crowded in his way, kneeling down and trying to help a bleeding man whose arm had been severed; another whose face was torn half off; using anything they could to help them and stop the bleeding. She lay there, vividly in his mind, just outside of his reach, besides the twisted bicycle; the torso of a young woman still moving with no legs.
Nick opened his eyes and found himself face to face with the body bag of John Henley, nearly embracing it. He jerked back impulsively. The tarp had fallen during the night and the shape of John’s face protruded through the bag. Nick raised his head to see the sun had already risen and was about to crest the mountains to the east.
He prepared a makeshift harness at the trailhead. The blue jays were already out and watching him, scrounging for food as he worked. The smell of pine was fresh in the air. And he could hear the river flowing gently and steadily just north of him. Before starting his climb, he took one long, deep drink from his water bottle. Then he slipped into the harness and started up the trail.
The harness cut deeply into Nick’s shoulders as he labored painfully up the trail. The trail steepened and began to switch back and forth. The body was heavy and bulky. Occasionally it snagged on branches or rocks and he would pull it free with a forward lurch. The sun did not help any. Now it was fully above the ridge and beaming straight into his face. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and funneled down the sides of his cheeks and ran into the deep lines of his face.
It was not long before he had climbed several hundred feet. He could see again above the treetops out to the Pacific. It was vast and blue and sparkled white beneath the summer sunlight. Below him to the north was the gorge of the Big Sur River. He could hear the water, white and rushing; and there was a plume of spray which rose from a series of small waterfalls and blew in the wind. If heaven is really a place on earth, he thought. This is as close as you get.
He dragged the body off the trail through tall grass, several hundred yards, traveling parallel with the steep mountainside. Finally he stopped in a clearing near a group of tall pine trees. The mountainside slopped gently here, gradually rounding off, and then dropping steeply into the canyon below. Nick stepped out of the harness and unwrapped the rope from around the body bag. He rubbed his shoulder with his hand. Then he surveyed the area – looking down the mountainside, through canyons darkened with redwood forests, along the hillsides of chaparral, and into a deep narrow valley full of sycamore trees. He looked all the way down the jagged outline of the coast, and could see the water near shore, a bright aqua-blue which darkened gradually as the sea became deeper. Nick took hold of the small folding shovel and began to dig.
Steadily he dug for half an hour, resting only for short periods. When he was finished, he dragged the body down into the hole, carefully covered it with the tarp, and filled it with the broken earth.
When he was all through, he sat alone in the tall grass beside the grave. He picked up a handful of pine needles, and tossed them to the ground, one at a time, like little spears. The ocean sparkled white before him with blinding brightness. The sun was warm on his shoulders. It caressed deep into his skin. From the canyon below came a soft breeze that tossed his short-cropped hair.
“The earth is good, John,” Nick said aloud. “It’s really good. And there’s nothing like American soil. And this is the best American soil there is. You’re back home John, like we promised.”
He paused for a moment in deep meditation, finally lifting his head to gaze across the forest-studded mountain tops. It was miles away from Sarajevo, but the land, similar in contour and terrain, harkened him back again.
From his position high on the ridge, he had been watching all morning. He had observed the progress of his three friends. At first he thought they had no chance, but now he could see clearly the route they were taking. It would lead them up the narrow canyon beneath the cover of trees to the bridge, between the command posts, then up to his position on the ridge. It was different from the way he had come up the night before. The Serbs had closed off both the bridge and the path on the east side of the stream. It was different alright, but it could work, he thought. It had to work. So long as they kept to the trees. The trees, that’s where they should be. To keep dipping in and out of the trees was not good.
He lay flat now on a bed of brown pine needles, his binoculars held steady to his face, both elbows planted firmly in the dirt. His strong, lean body held tense and still. The mountainside dropped off steeply below him, giving him a clear view down canyon across the treetops to the white and mud-colored buildings of Gorazde. The buildings showed clear through the glasses, though the damage from years of shelling was not readily evident from this distance. Nick had seen the damage up close – the battered, shell-pocked houses, the skeletal, roofless remains of churches, the crumbling hospital, and now he looked through the crisp, clear, magnified vision of the binoculars for the damage, but it was not justified from this distance. Above him hung the limbs of a tall, young pine tree. Between the branches came lines of sunlight across his body. He could see the Serbian artillery guns below him; 105-mm, he thought . There were others higher on the ridge, and bigger, 120-mm howitzers maybe. And beyond the guns down canyon he could see his companions very clearly. They had come out into a large opening away from the trees, now making their way up a steep, rocky, slope of talus shale. Zajko was leading, John to the rear, rifle strapped to his shoulder, and Nadia between them.
Nadia was having trouble keeping up. For each two steps up, her frail body slid one step back. She would stumble and slide down and they would pull her up and drag her along, then she would fall again. Maybe she was wounded? Nick thought. Maybe she had taken some shrapnel from the artillery shells they had dodged earlier? NO, it was just a difficult climb, he thought. That was the truth of the matter. She was pregnant too, and that didn’t help matters any. She wasn’t very pregnant, though, he thought. It was near midday, the sun was out, and it was a difficult climb. Their mouths were dry, they were breathing heavily, and they were tired now, very tired.
Nick lifted his eyes from the binoculars and looked up at the sun through the limbs of the young pine tree. He could feel the strength of the rays, and knew it was effecting their progress. He was glad to be in the shade, not glad for his companions though. He raised the binoculars back to his sunburned face and focused down canyon, working his elbows deep into the dirt.
They had begun early, as dawn broke, twenty minutes after the first shells of the day had landed. They had made good progress in the morning, over the sandbags and barricades and up under the cover of the trees. As they climbed through the forest, Zajko eased his mind by dreaming of better times; he tasted the Croatian grilled squid and dry white wine he once loved and might soon be sampling again; he smelled the Turkish pastry shells he loved so much, filled with spinach, cheese, potato and ground meat; he thought of children playing in the street, as he had done, children playing football and having fun. That was something he longed to see again. Nadia saw the faces of her mother and sister, who she hoped to see soon, although she wondered if they were still alive or had been killed. OH! That they could be part of the marriage celebration! she thought. OH! That they could share in the birth of her child. It was a celebration for all the family to enjoy, and as she climbed through the timber and now beneath the heat of the sun, despite the difficulty of it, she thought of these things and they strengthened her will.
She tried to look good. With death all around her, she tried to look good, for Zajko. All the girls of Gorazde tried to look good. That was their way of fighting back – to look beautiful, she thought, and to show those beasts that were killing them that youth and life would triumph over death. And John – John Henley, he had only one thought in mind, to reach the ridge by nightfall.
By midmorning, they had been slowed and frustrated by Serb patrols. The sun broke the mountains to the east and bore down on them. Sarajevo seemed more like an illusion, far away. They had become tired, hungry, and disillusioned.
Nick had made the trek the night before beneath the weight of a heavy pack of supplies. Maybe it would have been better for them all to come at night? Should have come by night, he thought. Rascic had done it, many times, up and down the mountains, across forty-miles of Serb-held territory. Dark nights without a moon, a small compass, carrying eighty pounds of flour back to the hungry. By nightfall was the way to do it, Nick thought. But Zajko and Nadia were fearful of it. They did not think they could climb the canyon at night. Now it was near midday, the summer sun was out strong, and they were suffering, sweating, and breathing hard.
It bothered Nick that he could see them so well. Here looking over the shoulder of the Serbs, in broad daylight, he could see them too well. It was not like John to take the easy way, the quick way. He had always taken the sure way, no matter how painful. The trees were longer, but they were surer.
Nick felt naked as he watched them come up the slope, naked for them, naked as though all his clothes and even his skin had been removed, and as he watched them, a flash of light came from the slope. When he lifted his eyes over the top of the binoculars he saw the flash again. Then focusing through the lenses, turning the wheels and adjusting them, it came clear – a reflection from Zajko’ waist. Something he was carrying on his waist was catching the sunlight, and when the sun caught it just right, it was as bright and blinding as the reflection of sun off water.
Nick shrank back involuntarily. That’s bad luck, he thought. There’s no other way to explain it. It’s the worst kind of luck.
They were nearing the top of the clearing. Nadia had slid back down the talus slope two more times, John had pulled her back up and she had slid down again. The artillery shells increased in frequency, landing dreadfully close, one splitting a tree near the edge of the clearing. The object reflecting from Zajko’ waist still shone brightly when the sun caught it right, each time making Nick winced.
Despite the slow progress, despite the poor choice to shortcut up the open slope, despite the beacon tied to Zajko’ waist, they were nearing the top of the clearing.
If they could just reach the trees, Nick thought. They’d be home free. Too close for artillery shells and enough forest cover to make it to the bridge.
“Get to the trees,” Nick spoke aloud. “Get to the trees!”
He knew how they felt, winded and mouths dry, their hearts pounding, their legs feeling heavy as logs, their thighs aching. They must be utterly exhausted, he thought. He dug his elbows deeper into the dirt and centered on them. He could see them crisply through his field glasses; Nadia still laboring terribly; John tall and strong pulling her forward, his rifle falling from his shoulder; Zajko now on all fours scrambling ahead. He knew what John knew, all too well. He had made a mistake, going by day rather than night, crossing the open space, and he was hurrying them now, trying to get Zajko and Nadia to the trees.
There was a variance in the sound of artillery shells, Nick had learned, in Sarajevo and Gorazde. He had learned to recognize which shells mattered and which ones did not; when to take cover and when not to bother.
When Nick first heard the discharge burst and the cracking sound of air splitting overhead, he knew it was trouble. A howitzer, 120-mm, he thought. He turned and looked skyward. The sound whizzed in a large arch over his head and down into the steep canyon below. Immediately, a second one came following the same path. The first one hit and within a tenth of a second, the second one struck. Before Nick could fix his binoculars back down canyon, the explosions tore the hillside at the top of the clearing.
Beneath John, beneath Nadia, and beneath Zajko, the ground surged, lifting them high into the air. Huge boulders and rocks blasted skyward in two vertical plumes of earth. Thundering up amongst the rubble, they were thrown like rag dolls, vertically and horizontally, out and away from the blasts. Then there was silence and the rolling clouds of dust.
The earth which had risen, came back down. When it settled, Nick counted them; one, two, three – three bodies, each sprawled in awkward positions, each laying separate from the others. Two symmetrical craters had been carved from the hillside.
Nick’s heart fell into the pit of his stomach. He dropped his head into his folded arms. Then, raising it, he watched through the lenses of the binoculars and hoped for movement. There was none.
He stayed for an hour and watched for movement, feeling empty and numb. Two hours and no movement. Then a Serb patrol reached the bodies. They took John’s rifle and searched the bodies. Papers were taken and scattered on the ground. Nick stayed until the sun dropped beyond the ridge behind him, watching for movement. Until nightfall, until he could see no longer, having scarcely moved, Nick looked through the glasses down at the slope to where his dead companions lay scattered near the top of the clearing.
Nick’s mind came back to Big Sur, to the grave he had just dug, to the friend he had just buried. A quiet smile softened his sweaty face. He slowly came to his feet. The marine breeze continued to blow up canyon and through his short, cropped hair.
“Peace to John Henley,” he said aloud, “a friend who will never come down.”
Then he took the shovel by the handle and threw it hard and far. It soared end over end through the air and crashed down through the trees below him.