Written by Nicholas Comrie
They handed me the photo and I took it with practiced concern, my look a mask against what I already knew. It was a grainy shot—a young man leaning against a chipped wall, bare-chested, hands thrust in jeans pockets as he smiled irreverently at camera. I felt its care-worn edges and its gentle heat. It had probably been clutched in the old woman’s breast pocket for months, moved from dress to dress, a constant companion in a meagre wardrobe.
‘My son,’ she said simply, a crack appearing between the syllables. I nodded. He was young. There had been much to live for; much he never would.
I knew of course who he was; knew when I’d seen him last. The memory was as clear as the memory of that day. Not that I could tell the woman. Instead all I could do was watch uncomfortably as she produced a crumpled tissue from her sleeve. I put the photograph in my pocket and promised to do what I could. She sobbed gently, her fat knees uncomfortably close to mine in the cramped space of the run-down rural precinct. The duty officer intervened to place a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulder, nodding sympathetically at me over her weighty form. She left without a fight, a survivor of worse days of unknowing, led away with a consoling word.
The photograph sat against others in my pocket, each one a final keep-sake handed over with painful resignation by mothers, fathers, distraught young wives. Each was the final of memory of loved ones most knew were dead. Some were portraits, others a figure among friends - sepia toned and years old, the best the families could muster by way of photographic history. Not all could manage even that. I pushed the pictures deep into my pocket and left, touching the peak of my hat as I passed the sergeant at the front desk.
The jeep was idling in the shade. I climbed in and Aurelio asked if I had got what I had come for. I nodded and told him to drive. We headed back into the city as night fell, Aurelio dropping me home as the final threads of light dipped below the rooftops of the neighbourhood. He’d pick me up in the morning, he said; we would deal with matters then.
I spent the evening with Clarissa and Yolanda, helping with dinner and homework. Clarissa joked that I was being suspiciously nice, accusing me of infidelities I had no part in. Later, as I sat with our daughter at the kitchen table, I caught her watching us as the last of the day’s sun drifted in through an open window.
I took Yolanda to bed a time later, joining Clarissa to catch the last of an over-exuberant game show on TV. We turned in early, but my sleep was troubled. In my dreams I stood at the edge of a midnight lake looking in, watching dark, almost imperceptible ripples with no source scud across its surface. Starting from my dreams some time in the night, I lay awake, watching my wife while she slept.
Rising early the next morning I pulled on my fatigues and boots on, sitting on the edge of the bed. My wife gave me a bleary-eyed smile and returned to the pillow. I kissed her head and slipped quietly out after a quick breakfast, Aurelio and the jeep already waiting at the curb. Hopping in, we headed into the mountains to join the rest of our team, assembled to search the ravines north of the city. Sprawling favelas sprung up on either side of the road as we climbed, clinging defiantly to the steep mountainsides. I watched from the window as the jeep snaked its way through the townships, recalling the same journey months before. It had been dark that time, the headlights of the trucks we rode in illuminating glimpses of country, lost moments later to the inky blackness. The occasional bare bulb had shone defiantly out—tiny haloes of light falling on the bare masonry and trailing wires of crumbling brick and mud constructions. I glanced across at Aurelio. He had not said a word since he had picked me up.
The day deepened, the sun rising lazily — heavy with sleep — over the horizon. I felt the cool mountain air on my bare arm and dug into a pocket for a pair of sunglasses, as the sun’s rays rounded the nearest hillside. We were getting close. Aurelio coughed uncomfortably in the seat beside me. His face hardened and then we were taking the turn, the jeep bumping fitfully along the gravel track down into the ravine.
Several trucks were already there, slewed to one side of the trail, surrounded by men from the battalion. We pulled up and waited for the inevitable roll-call. Aurelio produced some smokes and lit up. He offered me one out of habit, before returning the pack untouched to his pocket. I adjusted my hat recalling for a moment that night and the muddy tracks beneath the truck tyres – wet and midnight black; the footprints in the inky soil and the first raised hackles of fear.
A second jeep bumped its way into the ravine, as Aurelio pulled one last time on his cigarette, before flicking it out of the window and into the undergrowth. Our CO had arrived. We climbed out of the jeep and headed over to where the others were assembled; a semi-circle of men from the battalion there to take part in the search. We stood in grim silence as the major outlined where we would look, assigning each squad a quadrant of the ravine sketched out with a long stick in the muddy valley floor. Ours was the western-most finger of the steep valley. We had been there before.
The squads headed out across the ravine, each taking separate pathways that criss-crossed the valley floor — animal trails, adolescent play-runs and drug routes — short-cuts between the favelas heavy with vegetation and insects. We headed haltingly down one of the pathways, scanning the undergrowth on either side, each of us knowing that what we had come for what lay ahead. We all knew and now, so too did they — the men who had sent us here to revisit past misdeeds. There’d been a whistle-blower; none of us could deny it any more. The chances were he was among us. Only two members of our old unit weren’t present. Salvatore had moved away and Rafe had died in a motorcycle accident only a couple of weeks before. Otherwise, we were all there, obliged by a lonely conscience to revisit past crimes.
Pressing on, the other squads were soon lost from view, our quadrant and destination perhaps a kilometre further on. We came across the last vestiges of civilisation before the plunge, a straggle of tenements clinging grimly to the mountainside. Jorge had been there once the year before, chasing cartel runners amid the warren of run-down buildings; had chosen the spot for the purpose. The place was deserted, although overflowing junction boxes and lines heavy with washing indicated that it was still a home to some. We walked on and the trail descended further into the dark finger of the ravine, the light fading as we advanced the last hundred metres to the spot we all remembered and the end of our search.
We fanned out to search the ground, none of us yet willing to concede the truth. It felt like the cold recall of an accident; the slow motion replay of events beyond your control; its knowing fear and pained resignation. Aurelio clawed at an overgrown ground vine that had choked the life out of a couple of low standing trees. I pulled aside a cloak of branches, knowing before I did so that there was nothing beyond, but going through the motions anyway.
No one went near the drop, the final hidden well of that dark ravine. Instead we skirted the subject, busying ourselves with fingertip searches and thrusts into the rancorous undergrowth. I wondered again who had blown the whistle; wondered what they thought of the search and our mimed denials. I recalled the press conference and the words of the presiding judge — his call for the, "re-examination of extra-judicial killings carried out by units of the military". The papers had been full of the outrage, of the senselessness of it all. Within the unit, the orders and its later press coverage had caused barely a ripple. Perhaps we had seen enough. Murder came more easily the fourth time of asking.
We pressed on with the search, our efforts a sham we would all be obliged to end. Voices on the trail behind us signalled the close—conscience closing the distance on two feet. The hollow lay achingly unexamined and I edged closer as the voices grew in volume, the first of the squad breaking cover as I climbed the slight lip before the plunge. They greeted us noisily as only soldiers do and we responded with false bonhomie and nervous reserve. They mingled easily among us, "our saviours" — as they put it — from the relentless boredom of what they evidently regarded would be a fruitless search. I glanced at Aurelio and he simply shrugged. The others caught my look and turned away.
Gripping a trailing root I lowered myself into the little ravine, my boots sinking in the dark earth as I descended. A soldier appeared at the lip, a face I didn’t recognise, a grin and his "best regards" shadowing me the final couple of metres to the floor. They were there, of course. I didn’t have to turn to know. I grasped at the stem of a thick fern for balance and looked up, my back to the scene, the expression on the young soldier’s face enough to relay what my stumble had uncovered. The grin was gone, replaced by a seriousness befitting the gravity of my find.
They would find twelve bodies in the little ravine. Another six in a neighbouring valley. Perhaps we would be called upon to unearth them as well. Perhaps others were doing it as we searched.
‘Here. Here!’ The words pierced the air with a desperate clarity. I turned and took in the deathly stillness of the scene, knowing as I did so that the others were crowding the lip of the shallow ravine; drawn by a morbid fascination, their guilt and an urge to conceal it.
I had always naively pictured them laid out in a neat row — recollections of a ceremony from childhood, the burial of victims from a landslide; pale, grey faces, dark mud still evident at their collars and hems; arranged; serene. Instead the bodies lay in tangled drifts, knots of spent flesh thrown together by the momentum of the fall. There was no serenity in their forms, much as there had been no ceremony; just the muzzle flashes and sharp reports, the sound of their bodies tumbling and the final, pregnant question. ‘Why?’
He’d had every right to ask. Because we have quotas to fill; nothing more. Because you won’t be missed; dirt poor and instantly forgotten. That your life could be spent to justify hardliners and election manifestos; the political ambitions of great men and crack-downs on militants your mother had always told you avoid. Nothing personal — just your life for the cause.
I realised I’d stopped; felt the others’ sense of urgency burning into my back and pulled the nearest of the bodies aside. They wanted a head count, an indication of the find, but little was left of the men we had killed. Insects, humidity and decay had stripped them of all semblance of their humanity.
Picking apart the first of the wet bodies, I was quickly joined by four soldiers from a neighbouring unit, laying out the bodies on the rough ground, arranging them as I had seen it done when I was a boy. None of my old unit came to help me. Instead they watched uncomfortably from the parapet; silent, preoccupied.
I tried not to think too much about the process as we laid each body out, twelve dead men - like something out of a pulp pirate novel - a shot, sometimes two, gracing each; the attention of muzzles evident in the blood and powder burns of the decaying clothes. Looking up, I recalled each man’s face—fearful, expectant, indignant, detached. The moments before death elicit a range of emotions.
My gloves were slick with the wet of the bodies. I looked for somewhere to wipe them, but found none. Glancing up at the others, it flashed through my mind that they probably thought I was the one who had spoken out. Perhaps it explained their reticence. My presence in the ravine an admission of a trust now broken. I tried to shake the notion, but it hung on like a dog gnawing at an unyielding leash.
Looking again for somewhere to wipe my hands, I found only the gnarled fingers of nocturnal root ends and a tangle of woody vines. I ran my hands down my fatigues, wanting to be rid of the oily film. My palms chanced upon the clean, straight lines of the photograph; the rectangle of shared memory; the young man against the wall. My wife must have slipped the photograph into my trousers when I hadn’t been looking, must have assumed I had dropped it.
I dug hesitantly into my pocket and felt it there, as the others commended me on my efforts from the ravine’s edge. The picture was warm, the image clutched against my leg by the material of my fatigues. I thought again of the young man’s mother, of her halting willingness to relinquish the photograph, a crumpled tissue clutched in hands old beyond their years.
Pulling the picture from my pocket, I saw again the man’s playful nonchalance caught in the faintest fall of morning light. It spoke of happier times, the misadventures of youth. I recalled the face; noticed this time the jeans — the distinct red embroidery at the waist I had seen on one of the twelve in the ravine. He must once have been proud of the pair — of its elaborate stitch-work, the comments from the girls. Now it only served to identify his body. I looked up and felt the unease. A couple of men from the unit turned away; others fought pained expressions—guilt, denial perhaps. The interlopers just looked uncertain; expectant. I held out a hand and someone pulled me up the sharp slope.
Climbing from the narrow gully I was met by the shoulder stripes of authority; a clipboard poised to document the moment for posterity. I handed the officer the photograph and he took it without ceremony, fixing it to the top of the clipboard as though it belonged there. I thought to say something, but nothing came. All I could think of was Yolanda sat at the kitchen table, her fingers toying with tight, dark curls. Love had bought my silence. Instead I turned and left, heading back down the trail, accompanied by my own guilt, accusations and regret.