The covered transport lurches to a stop and the tailgate is immediately popped open by a waiting sentry. He backs up so the rest of us can jump out. The ground is dry and powdery. The dust floats up in the air and sticks to the sweat on my skin. For a fleeting moment, I’m relieved to be out that damned truck. The diesel fumes and the rocking back and forth, and the fucking heat. The privates wave us along and point us in the right direction even though there’s only a handful of us and it’s pretty obvious where we’re supposed to go. Habits, I guess. They keep you alive out here. We tramp along and kick up more dust. Dust is everywhere. It’s silty and gray from the ash, from the fires.
We enter a tent large enough to hold about a dozen people. Once again, the air is stifling. Sweat and smoke and stink and heat and all you do is try to breathe without breathing. A few guys tuck their noses under their shirts, but what’s the point? Everywhere is a furnace. Better to just forget about it. There’s a lieutenant inside and he’s telling us where we’ll go, what we’ll do. We know what to do. He looks tired. He has black trenches under his eyes and his skin is pale, gray, like the ash flying around us, sticking to us. He says it was a hell of a fight, but an important victory. If you look around, it’s hard to tell what’s been won. The military appraises property differently.
There’s a map, so I push forward. He points at it with a stick and then points with his finger through the tent as if there were a window. There’s no window, just suffocation. I nod to show I understand even though I don’t. You don’t have to understand the orders. They don’t matter. They change as you find more bodies, and there are always more bodies. We’re dismissed, and once again we’re given that split-second glimpse of what it would feel to like to have relief from the heat. It never relents, only changes.
The sun is beating on me again. The G.I.s, the guys who have been on this front for awhile, seem to only exist in the shade even though the trees no longer offer any. They’re just black trunks now. I wipe my head with a soaked cap of army green. Christ it’s so fuckin’ hot, I think. How do these guys do it? They look at me, but they don’t really see me. They don’t care. There’s an invisible line that exists between us. They keep themselves alive by doing all the killing, and I come in later to cover it up. No one says anything. No one needs to. I hop onto the dozer and fire her up. Her engine clatters to life and spews black smoke into the sky. The pillar of smoke matches what remains of the trees. I drive forward at a crawl. Every now and then a G.I. points the way, but it’s not necessary. They know it. I know it. I guess we’re all pretending that we’re just following orders. Maybe it’s easier that way.
The dozer begins to roll and sway like a vessel in the ocean as I enter where the village is, was. Small craters join and split from larger ones like dividing cells. One large hole in the middle marks the spot. The G.I.s have done most of the hard work, the dirty work. Corpses line the rim of the hole fairly well. This won’t take too long.
I’m reminded of my days as a farmer, back when I would harvest sugar beats. As I dozer along, dull thuds hit the blade. Limbs roll and toss in the dirt. Flies are everywhere. I’m already covered in ash, and the smokey air and loud motor is giving me a headache. Somehow, I keep pouring sweat. The pile of bodies in front of the dozer blade builds up as I push further, and the motor begins to work a little harder. Limbs bend out in strange angles and into the hole the go, toppling like large sugar beats, rolling and clunking and tossing dirt around. A dreadful harvest.
I look at them. I have to because they look at me. Their eyes are swollen and black. Their faces are bloated and pale. I look at them while I’m awake, and they look at me while I’m asleep, trying to dream that I had no part in this. But I did. I do. Goddamn flies are just everywhere. You drive yourself crazy trying to swat them away. I wish I could bury them too.