The air smelt of burnt napalm. There were only two of us left. The rest had left about an hour ago. We decided to stay. We did not want to leave. The Americans would come again. We knew that. They would spray the land and burn the blue haze yet again. We knew all that. But we still did not want to leave. We were just tired, tired of running every single day from them. Tired of wading through swollen streams full of anorexic leeches, tired of evading the open spaces and sleeping inside wet woods, and tired of not trusting our own people.
Life has to end sometime somewhere. We decided that for us it would be here by the side of an unmarked road, in a no man’s land between two hostile villages.
I lit a small fire even though it was dangerous. But you know how it is. When you have decided to die you do not care for small things. Comfort always wins over caution in such times.
My companion was quite old and it was remarkable that he had survived for so long. He was the type who did not talk much but looked hard at everything as if he could understand everything just through his eyes. We had met on the road north. He was part of a small company of men charged with the dirty business of killing some villagers who spied for the Americans in return for those ugly green notes that the whole world craved for. I was part of an elite unit assigned to run some dangerous missions behind enemy lines in the north. But we did not know the terrain and were in search of someone who could guide and also fight beside us. He fit the bill and we took him on. In a land of equal comrades hierarchy was still a novelty that did not spoil the revolutionary taste.
After that things went horribly wrong. The old man took us through a forest where we ran straight into a company of Americans. To compound our misfortune they were veterans of jungle and close combat warfare. It was a complete disaster. Those of us who survived drifted back in ones and twos to reach this pre-arranged meeting place. The old man was one of the survivors. This of course caused speculation that he might be a spy. Perhaps that was why he decided to stay back with me and wait for the American death machine. Or perhaps he was even more tired than me. He must have been in a lot more of the fighting. It might be a cliché but war is a dirty business, not to those who read about it in newspapers over their morning cup of coffee but to those actual poor souls who are caught in the middle of it. No, I shall not talk more about the misery of war. Great men have written about it toiling for years over their desks with a fire warming their backsides. I’m but a poor soldier, tired and angry at what war has done to my life and family.
The fire started to burn low but I did not feel like adding more wood to it. It was comfortable just to sit there and see the yellow flame go down slowly and allow the red underneath to dominate. I like the embers better than a fire. Fire is something superficial; it just goes about its job burning blindly everything in its path. But embers are not like that. They have a certain majestic beauty about them. They seem wise. They only burn if you touch them. They are content to just glow with the deepest and warmest of all colors.
My reverie was disturbed by a long sigh of the old man. He was looking towards the east, craning his neck to one side as if to hear something better. Were they already on their way? I could not hear anything yet. But then my hearing had been damaged during the course of the war. Another one of the many physical gifts I had acquired along the way. There…now I could hear something, something just on the outer threshold of hearing. The subsonic throb of rotors slicing through the heavy air like a knife through wet cheese. It was time and both of us knew it now. I looked at him and his gaze met mine and suddenly in that instant I understood why he looked hard at everything. It was a beautiful moment, a moment that transcended all material and temporal divisions. It was like all your life you were searching for that one thing that would define your life and in the end you find it in a corner where only discarded feelings lay gathering the dust of neglect and inaction. I could see the same understanding in his eyes, wet with the tears for the sudden bond between us. A new calm began to take root in my heart. I hugged myself and closed my eyes, savoring the wet taste of approaching infinity.