После того как взвод только что вернулся с патрулирования и расположился на отдых, прибывает майор, чтобы раздать награды. Стерлинг получает очередную звезду за доблесть.
[Spoiler (click to open)]“Platoon, ah-ten-shun!” barked the major’s aide as they sauntered into our area through a veil of camo netting.
The LT was snoring, stretched out on top of a concrete enclosure where we’d often wait out mortar barrages, playing spades or engaging in close-quarter wrestling matches until the last bits of shrapnel whistled by. He didn’t move. The major and his aide looked at each other, then at us, and we looked back at them only slightly more aware of their presence than we’d been the moment before. Even Sterling remained unstirred. All his gear was on, as taut and orderly as ever, but we’d spent the three hours prior to dawn waiting for a medevac that couldn’t fly through the cloud cover from the storm, carefully picking thin slivers of metal out of a boy’s face and neck while we huddled in a sewage ditch. We were tired.
The aide cleared his throat. “Ah-ten-shun!” he said, louder this time, but we enjoyed resting in the cool rain and the quiet of the early hour and hardly noticed.
Sterling roused himself, looked over at the LT sleeping soundly, and said, “At ease,” with what little earnestness he could muster.
We began to mill about as the major spoke. Only Sterling kept his military bearing and remained attentive. I think it was all that he had left at that point. On the periphery of our gentle domestic activities, citations were read. All the while, weapons were cleaned on dry squares of ground below camouflage nets and tarps, other boys ignored the rain and washed the dust and salt out of their clothes in red plastic buckets full of water gone brown and dingy with their filth, and still others traded care package items for packs of smokes, lighting up and coalescing into the major’s audience. But most paid the unasked-for ceremony the attention they thought that it was worth, and as the major spoke, the orders bestowing medals of gallantry and commendation upon us became soaked through, falling apart into wet organic tatters, whereupon they were received from him or not as each name was called, depending on the interest level of the boy in question at the time.
Only Sterling’s promotion caused any comment, and most of that because it was accompanied by a Bronze Star for valor. But we said, “Good job, Sarge” and “You earned it, Sarge,” and took turns patting him on the back. He gave the major a crisp salute, a sharp about-face, and sat back down against his tree trunk, the ribboned medal hidden in his palm.
It was heating up in Al Tafar then, and we’d be out on patrol hour after hour, so hot that it seemed that the dust gave off its own light even after the sun went down, so fucking hot that we’d joke with Sterling to get a rise out of him. “Sarge, it’s a hundred and twenty degrees. Why don’t we surrender and go home,” one of us would say.
“Shut your fucking cock holsters,” he’d answer if he was in a bad mood. Those rare days he could be said to have been in something resembling a good mood, he’d look back at us as we struggled over a wall or tried to scramble up over the scree of a sewage ditch, and he’d smile and say, “Life is pain.” And I’d tell Murph, both of us blinded by a sun that seemed at times to be the whole sky, “It would have been nice if somebody could have eased us into this shit.”
Мерфи пропал без вести. Бартл всё время думает об обещании, которое он дал его матери.
[Spoiler (click to open)]I couldn’t think of anything else. My days passed sitting in the dust, throwing rocks into a bucket, missing, didn’t matter. I thought a lot about that ridiculous promise I’d made to Murphy’s mother. I couldn’t even remember what I’d said, or even what had been asked for. Bring him home? What, in one piece? At all? I couldn’t remember. Would I have failed if he wasn’t happy, if he was no longer sane? How the hell could I protect that which I couldn’t see, even in myself? Fuck you, bitch, I’d think, and then think it all again.
I finally went to Sterling with my concerns. He laughed. “Some people just can’t fucking hack it, Private. You’d better get used to the fact that Murph’s a dead man.”
I scoffed. “No way, Sarge. Murph’s got his shit together.” And I tried to laugh off Sterling’s comment, turning back to him. “Nothing’s gonna happen to Murph, he’s solid.”
Sterling sat carving reliefs of animals into a broken ax handle beneath the slight cover of tree branches. “Private, you forget the edge you’ve got, because the edge is normal now.” He paused and lit a cigarette. It dangled out of his mouth and the ash grew long as he returned to his whittling. “If you get back to the States in your head before your ass is there too, then you are a fucking dead man. I’m telling you. You don’t know where Murph keeps going, but I do.”
“Where is that, Sarge?” I asked.
“Murph is home, Bartle. And he’s gonna be there with a flag shoved up his ass before you know it.”
I walked off, intending to look for Murph, when Sterling called after me. “There’s only one way home for real, Private. You’ve got to stay deviant in this motherfucker.”
Out of ideas, I asked around. “Anybody know where Murph’s been off to?”
“Naw, man,” they’d say.
“How the fuck would I know?” said others.
I ran into Sterling, his feet resting on a short stack of sandbags, a porno mag shading his eyes from the dulled sun. “Hey, Sarge, you seen Murph around lately?”
“Yeah,” he said. “He’s been going up to the medics’ station and eyeballing some bitch up there.”
“At headquarters?” I asked.
“No, dummy,” he replied. “He’s eyeballing our medic, fat-ass Smitty.”
“Oh, right. I’m going to head up there and see what he’s up to.”
“Your war today, Private,” Sergeant Sterling said, and I headed out of our area, ducking under the netting stretched from bunker to bunker and from connex to connex.
Глава 9: ноябрь 2005
Ричмонд, штат Вирджиния
К Бартлу приходит военный следователь. Его арестовывают.
[Spoiler (click to open)]The captain wouldn’t tell me everything, only that there had been an incident. Civilians had been killed, and so on. Sterling had gone on leave just before it had gotten the attention of some higher-ups who felt they needed to come down hard on someone to prove that all these boys with guns out roaming the plains of almost every country in the world would be accountable. And Sterling never made it back to be accountable.
So it was a rumor that had brought the captain to see me, the underlying truth of the story long since skewed by the variety of a few boys’ memories, perhaps one or two of them answering with what they wanted the truth to be, others likely looking to satisfy the imagined needs of a mother, abused and pitied as a result of that day in Al Tafar, which sometimes seems so long ago.
Thinking about him now, I’ve come to realize that Sergeant Sterling was not one those people for whom the existence of others was an incomprehensible abstraction. He was not a sociopath, not a man who cared only for himself, seeing the lives of others as shadows on a thinly lit window. My guess was that he’d been asked a question and he had answered it as broadly as he could, not thinking of all the room he’d left for the gaps to be filled in by the men who had asked it.
But I still believe in Sterling now because my heart beats. A lie by anyone on his behalf is an assertion of a desire to live. What do I care about the truth now? And Sterling? The truth is he cared nothing for himself. I’m not even sure he would have realized he was permitted to have his own desires and preferences. That it would have been OK for him to have a favorite place, to walk with satisfaction down the long, straight boulevards of whatever post he may have gone to next, to admire the uniformity of the grass, green and neatly shorn beneath a blue, limitless sky, to bury himself in a sandy shoal in the shallow of some clear cold stream and let the water wash over the pitted skin of his scarred body. I don’t know what his favorite place would have been like, because I don’t believe he would have let himself have one. He would have waited for one to be assigned to him. That’s the way he was. His life had been entirely contingent, like a body in orbit, only seen on account of the way it wobbles around its star. Everything he’d done had been a response to a preexisting expectation. He’d been able to do only one thing for himself, truly for himself, and it had been the last act of his short, disordered life.
As soon as the captain closed his teeth around the hard “t” ending “accident,” I closed my eyes. When I closed them I saw Sergeant Sterling on the side of a mountain. Saw the rifle barrel in his mouth. Saw the way he went limp, so limp in that impossible moment when the small bullet emerged from his head. Saw his body slide a few feet down the mountain, the worn soles of his boots coming to rest in a clot of pine needles. Then I opened them.
Глава 10: октябрь 2004
Мерфи ушёл из расположения части после гибели девушки-медика.
[Spoiler (click to open)]He was gone but we didn’t know it yet. We lazed around our platoon area half-asleep beneath the light of a moon that cast shadows over the plywood guard tower and triple-strand concertina. Nothing told us this night would be different from any other until a few hours later when Sergeant Sterling calmly walked into the middle of our imperfect circle and said, “Someone had a big old bowl of dumbass today. Get your shit together.” He’d looked annoyed by our random arrangement. Some of us were lying down, some were upright; some grouped together, some sat a little off, alone. It was hard to tell what bothered him more: his boys sprawled out like we’d been spilled carelessly from a child’s toy box, a shitty head count, or the fact that one of us was missing. The incoming alarm sounded over the FOB, warning us of an event that had already happened, as usual. “Let’s go get him,” he said.
Стерлинг организовал поиски. Один из местных рассказал им, что видел молодого солдата, который обнажённым бродил неподалёку и, казалось, был в трансе. Потом его увёл какой-то нищий старик.
Sergeant Sterling gave voice to our impatience. “Where the fuck is he?”
Вскоре они нашли мёртвого нищего.
Sergeant Sterling chewed his bottom lip in the dark over the indrawn form of the dead man, his hands stuck casually in his pockets. His rifle hung loosely from its sling.
“What now?” we asked.
Sterling looked back and shrugged. “Shit, I ain’t got a clue.”
После они нашли ещё одного свидетеля.
They exchanged words, and the cartwright turned toward one of the side streets and pointed out a minaret of the mosque we had passed earlier. It jutted precariously over the bank of the river, a protuberance of mottled stone. There was nothing between us and the tower but a road and barren fields.
Sergeant Sterling fiddled with his sight aperture, flipping it back and forth from night sight to day sight while trying to decide what we should do. Finally, he spit onto the dusty road and said, “They ain’t much for crop rotatin’, are they?” He paused again. “What’s he saying?” he asked the interpreter.
“He saw some men he didn’t know going into the minaret last night.”
“Five. Maybe six.”
“They look strange or anything?”
The interpreter looked confused. “Compared to what?”
Sterling squatted down on the backs of his calves. “All right, you guys set up a perimeter here,” he said to the rest of the platoon. “Me and Bartle are gonna check it out. It’s probably nothing.”
I looked at Sterling and shrugged. He shrugged back and called to the hermit from the side of the road, his voice echoing heavily over the short distance in the heat of late morning. Our shoulders hung limp against our sides.
The hermit called back, and as he did, the interpreter related what he said with a precise delay, which added to the confusion, their voices echoing in a way that gave me momentary déjà vu.
“He says that he has come through this place already and does not wish to walk the same way again.” The voice of the man slightly distant fell off before the last words of Pidgin English came. We looked quizzically at the interpreter and he said, “Check over there,” pointing to a patch of vegetation beneath the minaret.
Sterling motioned to the interpreter. “All right, get the fuck out of here. Head back to the others.”
“I don’t know, Sarge. Something ain’t right. This seems off,” I said. “Feels like a setup.”
He looked at me with extraordinary calm. “C’mon, Private, I figured you’d know by now. ‘Ain’t right’ is exactly what we’re looking for.”
“Ah, fuck it,” he said. “Only one way to find out.”
We had looked for him hard, this one boy, this one name and number on a list. As the man pointed, our fears had become facts, our hopes smothered and mute. We had, in a strange way, surrendered. But to what, we did not know. The sound of gunfire could still be heard periodically in the distance. The city would be covered with brass casings. Battered buildings would have new holes. Blood would be swept into the streets and washed into gutters before we were through.
We looked at the old man in the field reclining peacefully beneath the shade of the tree and saw for the first time the depth of his age and his black eyes and the mysteries housed in them. His white shift fluttered and he laughed and swatted away a few bees with his hand. We turned and walked toward the copse of trees and bushes that ringed the tower.
At the base of the tower the trees and flowers were thin and tinder-dry. The tower itself rose upward and was slung out precariously over the river. Sterling and I circled the base of the tower in the heat of the nooning sun, its mass appearing out of the dirt and dead flora like some kind of ancient exclamation. We found Murph, finally, covered in a patch of lifeless hyacinth, resting motionless in the shade of the grass and low branches.
Laid up hard and broken-boned in the patch of vegetation that was his journey’s end, his body was twisted at absurd angles beneath the pink and shimmering tower. We moved the brush that either wind or passersby had scattered over him. We uncovered his feet first. They were small and bloody. A supply sergeant could have looked at them and said size seven, but he would not need boots now. Looking to the top of the tower, it was clear that he fell from a window where two speakers had been set up to amplify the muezzin’s call.
Daniel Murphy was dead.
“Not so high up, if you really think about it,” Sterling said.
“I think he was probably dead before he fell. It just isn’t that great a height.”
It was truly not a fall from all that great a height: broken bones were broken further, no resistance or attempt to land was made; the body had fallen, the boy already dead, the fall itself meaning nothing.
I took my woobie out of my pack and covered him. I couldn’t look anymore. Most of us had seen death in many forms: the slick mess after a suicide bomber, headless bodies gathered in a ditch like a collection of broken dolls on a child’s shelf, even our own boys sometimes, bleeding and crying as it became apparent that the sound of a casevac was thirty seconds too far in the distance. But none of us had seen this.
“What should we do with him?” I asked. The words themselves seemed incomprehensible. I drifted in and around the significance of the question, first reckoning with the fact that the decision would be ours. Two boys, one twenty-four, the other twenty-one, would decide what should happen to the body of a boy who had died and been butchered in the service of his country in an unknown corner of the world. We knew that if we brought him back, there would be questions. Who found him? What did he look like? What was it like?
“Fuck, little man. You didn’t have to go out like this,” Sterling said to the body at his feet. He flopped down on his butt into the dry grass and took his helmet off.
I sat next to Murph and began to tremble, rocking back and forth.
“You know what we got to do.”
“Not like this, Sarge.”
“It’s what we do. No matter what. You know that shit, Bart.”
“It’ll be worse.”
“We don’t decide. That’s way above our pay grade.”
“Sarge, you gotta trust me. We can’t let that happen.”
We both knew what that was. There are few real mysteries in life. The body would be flown to Kuwait, where it would be mended and embalmed as best it could by mortuary affairs. It would land in Germany, tucked into a stack of plain metal caskets as the plane refueled. It would land in Dover, and someone would receive it, with a flag, and the thanks of a grateful nation, and in a moment of weakness his mother would turn up the lid of the casket and see her son, Daniel Murphy, see what had been done to him, and he would be buried and forgotten by all but her, as she sat alone in her rocking chair in the Appalachians long into every evening, forgetting herself, no longer bathing, no longer sleeping, the ashes of the cigarettes she smoked becoming long and seeming always about to fall to her feet. And we’d remember too, because we would have had the chance to change it.
He stood up and started pacing. “Let’s just think this through a minute,” he said. “Let me get a smoke.”
I gave him one and lit one for myself. My hands were shaking and my lighter wouldn’t stay lit in the wind and the wind blew the woobie and uncovered what was left of Murph’s face. Sterling stared at the empty sockets. I put the blanket back. Minutes ticked into the past. A few birds darted in and out of the brush and sang. The sound of the river became clearer.
“You better not be wrong about this.”
I couldn’t think. I wanted to take it all back. “This is so fucked, Sarge.”
“Chill out, man. Just chill out, all right,” he said, and then paused reflectively. “Here’s what we do: you get on that radio and tell the terp to send over the hajji with the cart. Tell them we didn’t find him.”
I took a minute and collected myself. Sterling went on, “We’re gonna have to fix this like it never happened. You know what that means, right?”
“Yeah. I know.”
We waited. A strange peace took shape between us. The sun muted the periphery into a mere abstraction of color and shape. Everything we did not look at directly became a blur in the corners of our eyes. We watched the hermit come, tapping lightly at the haunch of his mule. He walked slowly in the heat and all that was clear in our vision was the man and his lame mule emerging out of a hazy mirage, everything else vague or inverted or duplicate. The mule treaded lightly on its tinkered foreleg, and the man patiently guided it toward us. As he came closer we saw that the two mutts from before loped along behind him. The hermit approached and looked each of us in the eye as if we were lined up for an open-rank inspection, and finally said, “Give me a cigarette, mister.” I gave him one and he lit it, inhaled deeply and smiled.
Sterling reached for Murph’s legs and tried to lift him up. We didn’t have the chance to take it back. We had never had the chance, not really. It was as if we had already done it in another life I could only vaguely remember. The decision had been made. I moved to where Sterling was and grabbed Murph by the arms. I shuddered quickly. My heart beat recklessly. We picked Murph up and brushed the dancing flies from his skin and tried not to look into his empty sockets as we laid him in the back of the cart among the clay and stone and the figurines of straw.
“We’ll take him to the river,” Sterling said. “We’ll leave him there. Give me your lighter, Bart.”
I did. He lit the Zippo and left it burning and dropped it into the dry brush at the base of the tower.
“Let’s go,” he said.
It was not far from the river, and we walked behind the hermit as he led the mule into some approximation of a trot. We followed behind this odd coterie of man and mule and dog for a half a klick or so, until we saw the banks of the river. Water lapped the edges and bulrushes swayed gently in the shallows at the banks.
Sterling tapped on my shoulder, pointed behind me, and I saw the minaret in flames from the dried brush burning at its base. Burn it. Burn the motherfucker down. The tower lit up like a flickering candle as the sun began to descend from its brutal apex. I thought for a moment that we might burn down the whole city for that one tower. I was briefly ashamed, but quickly forgot why.
Sterling looked at me and whispered, mostly to himself, “Fuck ’em, man. Fuck everyone on earth.”
Amen. We floated behind the cart down the broad avenue leading to the edge of the river. The street was lined with poplars and the bodies from our search; opaque shades of brown, all ages and species. We walked past many things in flames. The thin and knotty trees and flowers soaked up the fire and lined the avenue in the descending sun like ancient guideposts, all flaming and circling a little light on the scattered bodies, breaking up the dark.
We floated past the people of the city, the old and childless hovel dwellers who wailed some Eastern dirges in their warbling language, all of them sounding like punishments sung specifically for our ears. Daniel Murphy’s body in the cart reflected the orange glow, the only color on his thin and parchment skin was the flickering palette of the fire. The shadows danced on his pale form and only the listing of the broken mule and tottering cart made his body appear to move like something other than a canvas for this burning scene.
We walked the body in the cart down to the edge of the river. The hermit walked around to the rear of his cart, stroked the mule’s flank and then embraced Murph, lifting him out of the flat carriage. Sterling and I each grabbed a leg and we walked the last few steps to the river and laid him in. He floated off quickly in the steady current, and in the water past the bulrushes little pools formed where his eyes had been.
“Like it never happened, Bartle. That’s the only way,” Sterling said.
“Yeah, I know.” I looked at the ground. The dust blowing in fine swirls around my boots. I knew what was coming.
Sterling shot the cartwright once, in the face, and he crumpled to the ground. No time to even be surprised by it. The mule began to pull the cart, unbidden, as if by habit. The two dogs followed it into the coming night. We looked back toward the river. Murph was gone.
То есть Стерлингу по книге было 24 года.
В последней главе о Стерлинге не упоминается.
Дочитала глубоко в ночи, не могла оторваться. Самым впечатляющим, конечно, получился образ Стерлинга. По-моему, он и есть главный герой, наряду с Бартлом, от лица которого написана книга. Мерфи вышел скорее каким-то "служебным" персонажем. Учитывая кастинг, уже понятно, кто в фильме притянет всё внимание, если Стерлинг и в книге прошибает.