They knelt beside her and one checked the drip that Jacek had been holding above her, giving him the thumbs-up for his work, while the other assessed her vital signs, fingers on the vein in the throat, eyes on the watch, followed by a quick glance, unreadable behind the shades, to his buddy. Then he pulled back the dressing across the top of her back and gave the wound a look of expressionless assessment. They didn’t bother with Charlie’s hands, bandaged up so that he felt like a kid in mittens four sizes too big. It was great how fast they were, how they concentrated on the essentials, how they lifted her on to the stretcher with that practised combination of moves, one two three, which turned care into procedure. Then they were running low for the chopper, with Charlie flapping behind, his hands held out in front of him and Jacek half holding Charlie so he wouldn’t lose his balance.
They fixed a radio helmet on Charlie’s head because he couldn’t do it himself, and they strapped him in, next to the stretcher, and the medic made a “No’ sign to Jacek who looked desolate but stood back, crouched low and turned away. As they lifted off, the stretcher locked in place by the door and Charlie in the jump-seat beside it, all he could do was wave his panda hands at Jacek below, diminishing and turning, as the helicopter gained height, his lanky blond hair flying about in the rotor chop, alone in the field.
All through the long night, she had moaned and moved her head from side to side, but now she was silent and her eyes were shut. He supposed that she was no longer in pain, that her capacity for pain had been seared away. One medic had pulled back the singed cotton material of her dress from an undamaged section of her left arm and was giving her an injection. Another pulled out Jacek’s drip and fitted a new one. The clear fluid rose, delivering salts and glucose into her veins.
Out on the field he hadn’t noticed, but inside the helicopter it became apparent that she didn’t smell good. It was a complex aroma of womanhood, sweat, urine and the sweetness of singed meat. They couldn’t clean her up en route, and there was nothing to say that they weren’t already saying on the radio back to base. Over the headphones he could hear the chatter and drew comfort from their military voices: female, twenty to twenty-five, civilian, third degree on twenty-five per cent, no further estimate of injury until examination, then the vital signs, a bunch of numbers for pulse rate and blood pressure that didn’t mean anything to Charlie, and some more traffic about preparations for her arrival. It all felt good: they were waiting for her, Navy trauma specialists in a gleaming white theatre.
Charlie wanted to tell her all this, but they shared no language and the chopper noise made communication impossible. They were scudding and shuddering in and out of the cloud banks, and when her eyes opened again they were shiny glimmers in the changing light. She gazed up at the grey-green insulation jacket covering the inside of the chopper, took in the flexes of the radio lines that went into their helmets and jounced as the machine buffeted its way northwards. Then she looked at him and held his gaze, expressionless. He hoped she knew her salvation was now only minutes away. He reached down to her uncharred hand and held it again between his bandaged hands.
All they had in common was the knowledge of what they had been through. But that was enough. Even if they could have spoken, they didn’t need to. Now at the end of her ordeal, with deliverance finally at hand, the shock was causing her gaze to blur. Her eyes closed and Charlie removed his hand to edge away, because the smell was beginning to make him gag. He took gulps of air through his mouth and turned his face to the window.
They – or rather Jacek – had done what they could: the IV drip, the bandages from the first aid kit, tied on to her back with strips torn from Jacek’s T-shirt. They called in the helicopter with the satellite phone and then they sat by the Jeep all night and waited. In the stupor of pain, Charlie held her hand because he didn’t know what else to do. There was an agonising wait for the daylight to come and the weather to clear. We’re air-ready, flight control kept saying over the sat phone, but we don’t have the ceiling. Fuck air-ready. Fuck ceiling. Get it here! he shouted and slammed the sat phone down. Charlie’s penchant for righteous rage normally left him feeling exalted, like George C. Scott playing Patton, but this time whacking down the receiver hurt his hands so much that he had cried out. After that, Jacek took the phone away and whether it was Jacek’s Polish patience or his prayers, they got lift-off clearance pretty soon. Deliverance was only an hour away, and it was the real deal, top of the line American trauma medicine, all in tents at the airfield. Charlie knew the place: a month before he’d interviewed some Jordanian peacekeepers who’d walked into a minefield and were being stitched back together there. The ones who could talk, the ones who were more than bandaged stumps of meat held in this life by a breathing pump and a heart machine, had all told him that the doctors were the best. So she would have the best too.
When they got to safety, and she was better, he would tell her how fine she had been, burned and tattered as she was, clambering and stumbling up the track in the dark from the valley where her house had been, to the woods on the other side of the border, at the edge of the refugee camp. She gave out only once, just slipped back without a sound and fell down on the path like a dropped shawl. Charlie couldn’t do anything because of his hands but Jacek and Benny linked wrists and carried her, chair-lift, for more than a mile till they got to the level. Jacek had been beyond compare, wordless, teeth clenched, bearing her weight. As for Benny, well Benny could carry a body uphill in the dark for all eternity. When they put her down, she stayed standing, and she just kept on walking straight ahead, along the path, as if she knew safety lay in only one direction.
She would have known the track well. It started right across the road from her house, in the woods at the end of her village. Before the war, there wouldn’t have been dogs, snipers and patrols. This was just a trail, one of the dozens that the herders used. When the war came, she would have heard the fighters – her fighters – taking the path at night, down from the plateau on the other side of the border filing past her house to take on the blue half-track and the militia squads in the valley. So now, in her extremity, she must have thought: my knowledge will save me. I will lead these foreigners and keep them to the path and, at the top, someone will stop this pain. So, after Jacek and Benny had put her down she walked ahead of them all, a woman in tatters leading them to safety in the dark.
She had been too shocked, too possessed by pain to look back. Her house was burning to the ground, her village was in flames. Charlie knew what it was that she should be spared, what she should never have to see: the way the hands would clutch the face, and the body would cower and tuck its legs in upon itself in vain search for protection from the flames. If she had seen him like this, her own father, she might have lain down and given up. Instead she kept walking upwards with the foreigners. They kept giving her water and she just kept walking. They hadn’t thought she could make it, but she had.
She had run from the house towards the woods where Charlie, Jacek and Benny were hiding, running with her arms outstretched, with the fire on her back flaring like a cloak. Hair on fire, back on fire, dress on fire, flames clinging to her while she ran. He jumped into the road to stop her because he knew – with lunatic clarity – that running was a mistake. Running fans the flames. You never run when you’re on fire, every book tells you that, you flatten out, roll in the dust. So he stepped into her path to stop her and she ran right into him, so that they rolled together in the red dirt of the road until they were one crumpled roll of melded flesh, Charlie beating on her back with his hands to douse the flames. As if he, Charlie Johnson, had been chosen by her embrace and anointed like her with the flames. He knew he was crying out, and when he next opened his eyes, she was lying on top of him, stinking of gasoline and burned skin. She was shaking, and he was too, and they kept still, knowing that the squad might still be at the end of the road. He thought that if they did not move someone might take them for dead. He was aware enough to feel that their bodies were transmitting identical intimations of fear. He could hear the flames from the burning roofs and shouts and the pop-pop of small arms. They were so tightly entwined that he could not see her face, but he could hear her moaning next to his ear.
And then Jacek crossed his line of sight, running low with the camera skimming the ground. He flung himself down ten feet away and began to turn over: the house burning, the blue half-track reversing and disappearing out of sight around the bend, all filmed through the wobbly alembic of fear. When Jacek had the shot, he pulled the cassette, jammed it into his pocket and ran over to get them to their feet and into the woods before the patrol returned. Only the patrol didn’t return. Darkness swung the advantage their way. The squad would not risk an ambush. Charlie knew they could now move out and take the woman with them, back the way they came. Only later, when they were on the plateau waiting for the helicopter, Charlie realised that Jacek had done something he had never done in their many years of working together: he’d left a camera behind.
All the way up the track, Charlie had thought that she might die. But now it seemed just as obvious that she would survive. People did. There was no reason this had to spin out of control. Looking down, he could see the lights of the airfield and he could feel the chopper coming down fast.
Soon there would be clear water and clean sheets. Surgical scissors would cut the singed garments off her body. Nurses would apply salves and ointments, ice packs to bring down the temperature of the skin. Fluids and plasma would perfuse her veins and she would sleep. She would awake and he would be there to make sure that she was all right. She would get grafts and have months of treatment, courtesy of the US Navy. She couldn’t go back, because her village had been torched and her father was gone. But she would be alive, and she was young, and that was something.
As for Charlie, he knew he was finished. For thirty years he had been fucked around by rogues and chancers and drugged-up hoods at checkpoints from Kabul to Kigali, but none of them had ever laid a glove on him, not really. He had heard the bullets whine over his head but in all that time he had never believed any of them were meant for him. He had seen the flames and always believed they would not touch him. Until that afternoon. When he pulled his hands away to see that they were covered with the carbonised remnants of her flesh and his own. Afterwards, waiting for the helicopter, he had sat in the dark, shaking from head to foot, so fully given over to fear that there seemed nothing left of him but terror. Yes, he was finished.
He had left Jacek behind and he was too tired to care. You weren’t ever supposed to leave crew behind, and the bureau wouldn’t let him forget that, even if it hadn’t been his fault. He had not been a hero, and the thought did not bother him in the slightest. If you didn’t know what fear was, you were in no position to say a thing.
The patrol of blue half-tracks had come in the quiet, with such stealth that Charlie didn’t realise they were there until the roof-tops at the far end of the village began to smoulder and burn. It was unbelievable to watch from the safety of the trees while the squad went from house to house, pulling people out, half-dressed, and leading the men away. He had no idea, and probably she wouldn’t know how to explain it either, why she had been the one of all the village women who resisted, rushing up to the squad leader, pleading on behalf of her house, her possessions, her father still inside. She had been so vehement she did not even see the green jerry-can arcing behind her until the gasoline slopped over her back.
Charlie saw it all from his hiding place at the clearing’s edge. The others in the squad had their balaclavas on, but not the commander. He had taken the cowl off, as if to say: I am the one who makes the fire come. I am the one you will fear. The lighter flicked open in his hand and he touched her back.
He watched her run, even stayed the hand of one of his men who drew a bead to fire at the back of her head. He let her run. He had all the time in the world. He watched her dance and tear at herself, until he lost sight of her round the bend of the road. Then he got into the half-track and reversed out of the village.
Her hand was limp as he held it and he wondered whether they would ever be so intimate again. It was clear that the scene they had lived through would remain unmastered as long as he lived and that this race to save her would never undo the fact that he had watched it happen and had been unable to stop it.
The helicopter felt for the pad and settled down. The doors were pulled open and they had a gurney right up under the rotors. They lifted her on and a team raced her away along the tarmac, and two medics were holding him by the elbows, until he shook them away. Everyone left him alone after that. He said he would walk, and they left him to follow the team that was running the gurney into emergency. He could see the low caterpillar shape of the mobile naval hospital, the brown network of tents where they worked on mine victims and emergency medical evacuations from the zone. The air was cold and scented with jet fuel. The interdiction flights were running twenty-four hours a day. In the distance, at the far end of the runway, the Nighthawks were poised for take-off, their fantails glowing crimson. He felt the fear ebbing from him with every step he took. He could see the nurses just ahead, in the light of the halogen arcs at the admission bay of the hospital, taking her inside.
He followed her down the low corridors, lit by sloping arches of 40-watt bulbs, conscious now, as he passed the young surgeons in their theatre scrubs and the naval orderlies in their browns, that he was dirty and blood-soaked and unwell. But they stopped him when the gurney was wheeled into the surgery bay, behind two plastic flanges that closed against him. Two medics sat him down, and a nurse poured sweet milky coffee down his throat, which stopped him shaking, and they attended to his hands. They laid him down on a bed and they put him on a drip, and a blonde nurse, with her mouth covered in hospital green, had his hands on her lap, cleaning them with swabs. Everything hurt, and he said so, and she gave him an injection and he felt nothing at all and lay on his back watching night moths slam their heads into the rows of naked bulbs that snaked down the apex of the tent. The heat ventilators were roaring and the tent flaps were billowing, and dust from the moths’ damaged wings filtered through the light and Charlie felt he had made it home and dry. He was lying back with his eyes open, when a young surgeon in scrubs came in. He wanted to know whether he knew her, and Charlie asked, “What do you mean?” and he said that the female civilian was DOA – or shortly thereafter, he corrected himself – and that since he was going to have to process her, he had to know her name.
‘she didn’t have one,” Charlie said. For the rest of his life he was to wonder why he had ever allowed himself to believe it would end in any other way.
Copyright ” 2003 by Michael Ignatieff. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.