Illustration by Andres Garzon
Kilometers from Kandahar’s sewage scent and mortar symphony, Private Joseph Lespérance of the Canadian Infantry was letting himself sink in the crater of mud, slowly, without resistance, as the rain continued to pour. His ears buzzed—sound was returning to him. He could hear Allah’s name echoing from the distant village mosque where followers cleansed their feet of toe jam and sin, and the heavy breathing of someone an arm’s length away from his body. His intuition told him that only he and Blume had survived. Lespérance opened his eyes, unsure of whether he wanted to prove himself right or wrong; through his blurred vision, he made out Blume’s pale face.
The pressure cooker bombs had exploded one by one in coordinated waves of shrapnel and fire, tearing the earth open like a mouth. Privates Farrow and Skalski lay in bits strewn across the crater. Moments before the explosions, the patrol unit of four had reached checkpoint Aashiq to secure the deserted farmlands south of the mountain village. Insurgents had operated out of the deserted farmhouses before being snuffed, but there was always the risk of it being recaptured. The patrol took their positions. Lespérance was on lookout duty, his boots inches deep in sticky mud. Rain dribbled down his binocular lenses while he scanned the hills, trying to distinguish plotters from passersby. But his mind was drifting. The sky was pouring for the ninth consecutive day, transforming the dust and dirt roads of the Helmand province into rivers of sludge. It was consuming the land and everything in it.
“Joseph?” Blume mumbled, letting go of his Colt C7 rifle. He attempted to remove his boots from his feet, but his legs were stuck in the mud as deep as roots.
Lespérance tasted the coppery sweetness of blood. Lying on his side, he touched the pear-shaped wound in his abdomen and closed his eyes.
“Joseph, are you there? I can’t see.”
Lespérance opened his lips to speak, but he had nothing to say. He had played out his confrontation with Blume in his mind until he had grown sick of it. He tried to tune Blume out, listening to the drip-drop of rain and crackling of dying flames. Smoke was all around them like curtains, making the world opaque while the mud drew them closer together in descent.
“You there, Joseph?” Blume said louder, wiping the mud from his eyes. “
“Guess you can say that,” replied Lespérance.
“You hurt? I can’t see a fucking thing. Not a thing.”
“What’s it to you?” Lespérance mumbled. The mud had reached his elbows, pulling his waist in.
“What kind of question is that?” Blume cried. “I think we’re sinking!” Blume was feeling out the crater for something solid to hold onto. “For fuck’s sake, pull me out. I can’t move my legs!”
Lespérance spit to the side and opened his eyes to watch the smoke climb skyward. “It’s about time I get a change of scenery,” he said, closing his eyes again. “You know, away from here. Away from you.”
Outside the crater, men shouted in Pashto. The tones of their voices rose, celebrating or lamenting either victory or tragedy.
“I can’t see” moaned Blume. He rubbed his eyes. The same eyes that had caught Lespérance’s wink in the barracks two years ago and accepted an invitation after a moment’s hesitation. He spread out his arms, trying to propel himself forward in a blind swim, but it took hold of his right hand. He swore, swaying back and forth before plunging in the free fist in frustration, burying himself deeper with each movement. “You told yourself things,” Blume continued. “Convinced yourself of things that you didn’t really believe. You did that!”
Lespérance leaned his head back and exhaling. His limbs were no longer visible—they had been absorbed into the ground.
“I’ve got it all worked out.” Blume said. “I’m gonna sell the condo for a bigger place. Maybe I’ll move to the country.”
“You hate the country,” Lespérance replied.
“…up in the mountains, view of water and woods.”
“You’re afraid of heights.”
“…away from city smog. Fresh mountain air. Wildflowers.”
“You have allergies….”
“…gonna built a house from scratch. And start a family.
“You hate kids.”
“I’ve got—” Blume searched for the right words to defend himself.
“No one.” Lespérance finished the sentence.
Silence ensued as the mud drew their sinking, breaking bodies closer, faces only inches apart. Lespérance remembered a day nine months ago, when he had woken up at three o’clock in the morning. He had climbed down from his bunk and gone to meet Blume by the latrine like they’d arranged, but Blume never turned up. By four o’clock, Lespérance had dragged himself back to the tent and had climbed back into his bunk, feeling dumb and rejected. That’s when I should’ve figured it out, thought Lespérance, as he sunk deeper into the tar-thick mud.
“Is it a boy or girl?” Lespérance asked. Blume had broken that news after nine months of distance. Blume’s wife was pregnant, and she due to deliver next month. His tour was coming to an end. He sent his request for an honorary discharge and packed his belongings in advance. “Were you ever going to—”
“I’m leaving this shithole!” Blume interrupted.
No words were spoken between them in the company of others, though the only audience they had now were the charred remains of Skalski and Farrow deep in the mouth of the crater. They had always stuck to a script of public silence during their tours, returning home to disparate lives for weeks at a time, one in Ontario, and the other, in Quebec. Either by fate or coincidence, they always ended up in the same regiments, performing their duties without raising any eyebrows and seizing moments alone to plan future encounters in barracks washroom stalls.
“Were you ever going to tell me that you got married?” asked Lespérance.
“You knew I was engaged,” said Blume, lowering his voice as though concerned the dead would hear. “Why does it matter?”
“You weren’t supposed to go through with it!”
“You don’t decide that for me!” yelled Blume. “You’re not in the picture! It was convenient. That’s all,” he added breathing hard, looking half-relieved.
Their faces drew even closer, lips only inches apart in the mud. Lespérance had seen enough of Afghanistan. Enough of Blume. The opaque world was quickly boring him.
Seconds before the pressure cooker bombs went off, Lespérance had been watching for enemy movement in the trees. He’d lost himself in the barbed wired opium fields, in the swaying weeds, in the willow trees, in the fabric of distant mud hut doors of recycled oil drums and tin. Birds had been squawking ominously, but he’d said nothing. Silhouettes of suspicious bodies had lingered in the tall weeds, but again, he’d said nothing. Lespérance had zoomed in with his binoculars, seeing the Afghan escort arrive out of position: three men without uniform by a machine gun mounted Chevy. He’d zoomed in as the driver held up his cellular phone, waiting to press the detonation key. It had even seemed like the driver was staring back at him. Lespérance had read all the signs and had still said nothing.
Outside the crater, men had been shouting over an orchestra of gunfire. Getting closer and closer. A matter of moments, minutes, seconds.
“Do you have a picture of her in your breast pocket?” Lespérance’s face was slipping under. He spat, lifting his lips above the surface to finish his sentence, “Or do you have a picture of me?” His lips sank in.
Blume replied inaudibly. He coughed, choked, and finally gave in, as the mud forced itself into his mouth, nostrils and ears.
Lespérance wanted to have the last word, but he couldn’t. He was nose-deep in. He closed his eyes, and then the mud sealed them shut.
JOE BONGIORNOis a writer of fiction and non-fiction and works as a high school teacher in his native Montreal. His writing has appeared in Geist, Broken Pencil,Carte Blanche, Existere, and The Headlight Anthology. He is currently working on a novel.
Copyright © 2018 by Joe Bongiorno. All rights reserved.