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Above Us, Only Sky.

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Above the clouds, where the air is as pure as the sunlight, she floats with her arms by her sides, looking out at the sky around her. She can sense that her physical body waits on the earth beneath her, that this is a matter of perception, afforded her by virtue of an education at her mother’s knee.

She looked at the sky around her, endured the bone deep ache of being in the presence of beauty such as the world around her. Her soul trembled at what she had to do, but when she spoke, her voice rang out across the sky.

‘I am Esperanza, daughter of Dona Maria, I am curandera and I come to find something that has not been lost.’

Her voice echoed, but nothing moved or responded. A chill wind blew across her shoulders, wracking her with shivers. Was this the response? Mama had said that they would speak to her. Esperanza took that to mean a conversation, but this was a chil breeze.

She felt it then, a tugging sensation to her left, like a child pulling at the hem of mother’s skirt and she followed it.

Downwards.

She plummeted, too fast to scream and blacked out for a second with it’s terrible velocity.

2.

Beneath her, the soft damp bed of moss laid damp against her cheek. She got up, wrapping her arms around herself as she looked out at a sea of trees, tall enough to pierce the low hanging clouds above her. So thick was the cloud that it made her strain to see the details. She shut her eyes, and listened.

The gentle trickle of running water, and she smiled to herself.

There is the Rio Abjao Rio, the river beneath the river. If you hear it, in the air, the spaces when you hear your true love’s voice, then you must follow it. She got to her feet and began to walk. Her steps were tentative, but she took a deep breath and carried on into the forest.

The noise of the water gained presence and volume as she drew nearer. The air was cool, damp in her nostrils and on her lips. She raked her hair away from her face, and wriggled her bare toes into the moss beneath her feet. She drew courage from herself, and kept moving.

Which was when she heard the roar, not of the river this time. She felt the thump of motion gathering pace as it came towards her, knocking back undergrowth and branches with no more care than you would walk through a column of smoke.

She looked into the bear’s eyes. The warmth of corn liquor, caramelised and liquid. Beautiful, and all the more so, for the grizzled ferocity of it’s expression. It roared and she put her hands up.

‘Stop.’

The bear reared back on it’s legs, blocked out the light with it’s size.

Which was when it began to chuckle.

Esperanza suffered fools all her life, but she had been unprepared for such mockery to arise in a place as pure as thought. Pure as sky.

‘You do not laugh at me without cause, spirit.’

It guffawed as it licked his left paw with his thick, pink tongue, watching her with an expression equal parts hunger and amusement. It thrilled her to be looked at in such a way, but frightened too.

‘No, it appears that I do not. What do you search for?’

She took a deep breath.

‘I come to surrender.’

The bear shook it’s head and lowered it’s eyes as it moved onto all fours.

‘To me, is it that simple?’

Her stomach grew hot and sour, the bear’s voice was gruff but smooth, burnished by endless experience and beneath it, a warmth like a good shot of tequila began to smoothe out her fears. She shook her head.

‘No, it is not. My mother taught me that.’

The bear looked around and grinned before returning it’s gaze to her.

‘And, what is that lesson? Humour a big old bear, would you.’

Esperanza closed her eyes, took a deep breath and spoke, not from memory but from heart.

‘A woman’s surrender is a gift, a demonstration of power and not defeat. We surrender to the cycles of life and death, the release of purest ecstacy and the duties of the flesh. To surrender such power is a gift and it is done not in the spirit of looking backwards.’

The bear padded over to her, sniffed and hummed deep in it’s throat, it’s massive chest reverberating the air around it with it’s vibration.

It licked along the line of her neck, the tongue was soft, but rough like a washcloth and it tickled her sending delighted shivers of sensation down her spine.

‘I accept, Esperanza.’

It lowered it’s shoulders to the ground then looked upwards at her.

‘What are you doing, Bear?’

‘I will take you to the rio abjao rio, Esperanza. I know the way.’

She walked around the bear, reaching forward to take purchase in the thick, brown fur on it’s back. She lifted her leg over, until she was astride. It’s heartbeat thumped like a drum and the hot engine of it’s breath moved her like the tides. It was frightening and exciting all at once.

The bear lifted it’s shoulders and turned it’s head.

‘Are you ready, Esperanza? I know that this frightens you, but the truth of a situation often does. ‘

She gripped the fur and smiled at the bear before her. Beneath her.

‘Then you must show me, Bear.’

It began to move, slow at fast but then faster.

It never quite matched the rapid pace of her heart though. Nothing was faster than that.

 

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The Burden of Law.

 

We had been in country for six months now, making friends was a thing of necessity and all of us in the unit had developed friendships in different layers. Imogen, who had dropped out of Stanford to be here was tight with Lorraine, who had been about to start beauty school before she got drafted, giggled like she was sucking down helium and liked to do our nails and hair when we were back at base. Olive had been on a scholarship to run track at LSU and she would work out with Patsy, who had been running her dad’s hardware store when he took ill, had resented handing it over to her younger brother, and took it out on the rudimentary weights and track they had ground and welded out of jungle dirt and brush. My BFF out here was Kelly, because of the fact that we had come from the same town and signed up together. It was that or get pregnant, get married to someone who would become an obese stranger to us over time and watch the years fly by. Safety is an illusion, and it just didn’t feel right to stand by and let other people stand a watch for our safety.

It’s strange what you believe, and your reasons for doing things. They weren’t lies as such, but we believed them at the time. Boot camp didn’t abuse us of that notion.

War did.

We dealt with it in different ways. Some of us retreated back to habits that engendered comfort, like Olive running track and Lorraine doing our hair.

Then there was Laura. Law, she shortened it to that and even spelt it that way, had it stencilled on her helmet with a skull and crossbones underneath. She was married, apparently, no kids, volunteered at the church in the small town where she had been born and lived before she got drafted.  No more than 5 feet tall, about a buck ten soaking wet but she had muscled through training. She was good at it.

Too good, but we never said that aloud. It was a feeling that could only be captured in the language of friendship’s whispers.

Law was the member of the unit who was appointed to kill children. It was not an official order, nothing written down or anything that would put a five star general in front of a sub committee but it was there.

Necessary.

It did not sit well with us, a callus against the skin of our souls, a cut that would heal if we could stop touching it. Law bore the burden quietly at first, but that changed.

It was the enthusiasm that she showed.

She started to take trophies. Fingers or ears because they kept better. No one else needed memories of their kills in country.

Once you’ve shot a grandmother in the face, it tends to stay with you. At least, I hoped it did. It reminds you that you’re still human. Still a woman.

So, when I tell you about how it ended, you have to understand that we were thinking about a lot of different things.

The village was supposed to have been cleared by the 101st

Law, by then, had settled on fingers, tied onto her bandolier of shotgun shells with neat loops of string, each one woven through one of the canvas pockets where each shell nestled, snug like a baby at a breast. Her bright red hair had been shaved down to stubble, bursts of cinnamon freckles against white skin that either burned or resisted the sun. Droopy-lidded brown cow eyes that saw everything with a quiet acceptance. She worked the pump action shotgun with surgical skill. Whatever she aimed for, she hit.

So when the little boy emerged, cheap Russian AK shaking in his arms, she was already in motion. Olive shouted but it was too late.

He flew backwards, at that range, his unformed, tan chest blew apart like a pound of meat dropped from a great height. Law had done it with no more expression than flitting a bug from her eyeline. We stood there, as Hillary, our lieutenant came over and touched Law on the shoulder, as though waking her from a pleasant dream.

‘What the fuck?’ I said.

Hillary raised her eyebrows and strode over to me. Her face had tightened into a harsh scowl, the same one she had probably used as a wedding planner to deal with an errant tent rental company error.

‘Sargeant, you do not get to question operating procedure. Stow that shit for base camp.’

Law knelt in front of the cooling corpse, looked around and giggled. It was a sound that stayed with me for as long as I lived. She already had the knife in her hand, ready to take a trophy.

The next sound was the shot.

It took her between the shoulder blades. Kelly lowered her rifle, then knelt down, placed it ground in front of her and knitted her fingers at the back of her head. She looked at me, tears budding in the corners of her eyes.

‘It had to be done, lieutenant. She can’t go home with that inside her.’

We retreated at the same pace we had arrived. Kelly was by my side, relieved of her rifle but not her duty. Hillary could have shot her there and then, but there would have been enough paperwork with Law already.

When the MPs came and took her, she smiled at me. I could not bear the weight of it and as she waved at me, she had the same expression as Law, but it was overlaid with the patina of friendship. I never saw her again, but when I went home, resuming my bachelors degree, I thought of her often.

I thought of Law too, but those were done by the time that I awoke. I would wash the sheets and shower a little longer than normal.