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Authors: Derek B. Miller

Tags: #FIC030000, #FIC032000

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BOOK: The Girl in Green
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The man shouted something in Kurdish, which Märta didn't speak. The boy turned around at the sound of the man's voice, which Märta took as an affirmation in response to her question, and immediately told the man to tell the boy not to move. From here on he became Märta's voice, and, like every other Westerner trying to change the world through a translator, Märta had no idea what he was actually saying.

While Märta tried to calm the child down by proxy, Tigger calmly explained to Herb that all this was the fault of the Americans.

‘Oh, really?'

‘Ah, yes. All your compatriots think they are in the Dutch countryside in World War II. They are giving out Hershey bars again. Patting the children on the heads.'

‘So we're being friendly to the locals — what of it?'

‘They aren't Dutch. They're Kurdish,' explained Tigger. ‘They've been taught not to receive a gift without giving one back. So, having nothing, they are scouring the countryside for objects to give back to your soldiers — hand grenades, cluster munitions, anything of equal value to a Hershey bar. Your people have no idea where they are, what they're doing, or what the consequences of their actions might be. None. And now this kid is out there, and I have no idea what we're going to do. I suspect he will die and we will have to watch. As we always watch. Helpless, from the sidelines.'

‘I'll get him,' said Arwood, who had been listening to their conversation.

‘Don't be ridiculous,' Tigger said.

‘No, really. I'll do it,' he said, and without further ado he slipped from the ridge and walked casually past Märta and her penny-loafer-wearing translator, directly into the minefield.

‘Wait!' Märta said after a pause that lasted too long.

Arwood walked into the contaminated area, his footsteps clear and sharp in the dirt.

Benton silently approached Märta, who was still on the ridge. To Märta, Benton seemed more concerned than surprised. Whatever was happening here was the product of something else. Benton and Arwood had come from the south, near Samawah, where the fighting was hot. Something had set Arwood off on this trajectory that she didn't understand, but perhaps — from the expression on his face — Benton did.

Arwood walked casually toward the child. His smile was as tender and wholesome as a Tennessee sunrise. When he reached the little boy, Arwood dropped to one knee as though he were taking orders or issuing a small prayer, though both were the furthest from the truth. He looked into the blue eyes of the little boy and said, ‘Arwood.' He patted himself on the chest. ‘Arwood,' he said again.

A piece of shrapnel from the explosion that had killed the other child had lacerated the boy's soft face with a laser-straight cut from his chin up past his left eye. It was deep and bleeding, and would obviously scar, but his eye was unharmed and the blood loss was modest.

The boy was in shock.

Benton watched from the top of the ridge where, by then, a hundred people had gathered. Herb and Tigger had stopped arguing, and Märta and her translator had stopped talking. The spectacle of Arwood Hobbes crouching in the minefield with the boy had united the refugees and the international staff in a common moment that everyone could understand and no one could explain.

‘Arwood,' said Arwood, patting himself gently on the chest again.

The boy stared at Arwood. He was traumatised. There was no predicting how he would react. He could just as easily have sprinted off across the minefield. But he didn't. Without a sound, as though released from a cage, the child leap into Arwood's arms and held him as though Arwood were the winged Buraq who would fly them both away on a night journey to a fabled place where they could find whatever had been lost.

When the boy was firmly engulfed in Arwood's arms, the ubiquitous silence broke. To Benton, it was as though all the languages of the coalition were being spoken at once, pulling the moment apart by trying to fix it. The hundred people on that ridge had swelled and swelled again. To a million refugees. To all twelve thousand American forces from all four branches. To two thousand French, one thousand Italians, one thousand Dutch, one thousand Turks, four thousand Brits, others from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain. Their boots all muddy, they were yelling a thousand thoughts in a thousand tongues.

Arwood wasn't paying attention to any of this. He didn't have a plan or a motive or a strategy. He was present only in the moment, and responding to its imperatives. He took one step and then another. Arwood carried the child — as thin as a shadow, and vivid as a dream — in his arms by placing each foot that hadn't blown up earlier on the same spot so it wouldn't blow up later. Step by step, unhurried, he walked with the boy back to the ridge and up its slender path, past Tigger and Herb, and close enough to Märta and Benton so they could look into the child's eyes as he was carried past.

Arwood handed the child to the people crying most before disappearing into the wailing crowd that surrounded him with hands, arms, and love.

Hours later, after dusk fell and the mob had dispersed, Märta went looking for Benton. She found him sitting alone on a rock with a can of Fanta. She said, ‘Want to join me in Wonderland?'

Benton looked at her. ‘I don't know what that's supposed to mean.'

‘It's a recreation tent. I want to talk to you about what happened this afternoon with your friend. I haven't been able to focus.'

‘It was quite a day.'

‘You seem to be taking it well.'

‘You don't know me.'

Soldiers weren't welcome at Wonderland. It was a recreation space of five large tents arranged into one covered area where the international staff of different non-military agencies would decompress at night after what counted for a day was done. It earned its name from being the place where everyone could wonder out loud what the hell they were doing there.

The military lived behind walls. They dug in like Romans. In the Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs, the military served home cooking that agreed with their soldiers' tastes and tummies, played hard rock and hip-hop, and built a colony as hermetically sealed and dissociated as a Marriott hotel on Mars. The command renamed every local road, destination, and object so it was memorable and pronounceable to kids with high school educations. In making life easy, because war is hard, they created a universe so artificial that you could be stationed in Iraq for years and never learn a thing.

The humanitarian staff lived in tents on the ground among the people. Listening to the same sounds, they heard the same conversations. There were no walls, no guards, no weapons. They were safe, not because they had defences, but because they'd been invited.

That night, Wonderland glowed yellow from the inside. A Honda generator hummed its syncopated beat, and some thirty people were hanging around on the floor and chairs. A few were reclining on an expensive red Roche Bobois sofa that seemed to have dropped from the sky, because no one could account for how it had got there.

The majority opinion was that it had belonged to Saddam. The dissenting minority opinion was that Saddam didn't have good enough taste to explain the sofa. The first group was anxious without an explanation, no matter how preposterous. The second group was simply happy not to be wrong. The sofa faced a 19-inch cathode ray-tube television. There was nothing to watch on Iraqi television but the dictator himself, and no one — not even the most media hungry of the student volunteers who might speak Arabic — wanted to watch Saddam. Luckily, though, some enterprising German kid had had the foresight to bring a VCR with him to Kurdistan, as well as the necessary RCA cables to plug it into the back of whatever television set might be found. So, at night, Wonderland lit up like
Cinema Paradiso
.

The German kid's name was Dominik. He came from Kaiserslautern at the edge of the Palatinate Forest. Being near Ramstein Air Base, it sometimes felt overrun by NATO military personnel, all of whom insisted on speaking English. For this reason, it had been an excellent place to get hooked up with English-language videos during the Cold War.

The video library at Wonderland in April 1991 consisted of

Cheers
, Season 3;

Magnum, P.I.
, Seasons 4 and 5;

Golden Girls
, Season 2;

Seinfeld
, Season 1;

Gremlins
;

Ghostbusters
; and

Platoon
.

There was some debate about what to watch.

The universal was
Seinfeld
. Everyone liked
Seinfeld
.

When Märta had invited Benton to Wonderland she had had designs only on a conversation. She had wanted to see him alone after the minefield incident. She needed to talk, or maybe listen, because she needed to understand. Arwood was nowhere to be found, and he didn't seem like someone who could explain himself when asked. She needed an analysis. She needed to know whether whatever Arwood had might be contagious.

Märta had first worked with United Nations Volunteers at the age of twenty-six, starting in Lebanon in 1983. She was offered a job in the system, but the infighting between the Department for Peacekeeping Operations and the UN Development Programme was so vociferous, so intractable, and so counterproductive that she decided on UNHCR instead. UNDP's development work seemed ideological and immune to historical reason. Peacekeeping was a military activity that insisted on universal best practices, even when no practice was universally best. But humanitarian affairs was goal-oriented, legally grounded, morally valid, and logistically adaptable. She was more at home in that sector, but she still hated the way the UN worked, and knew it wouldn't last forever.

Though she was an improper fit, she was eventually able to blend with the other professionals. Being smart, though, she was still able to see the experience for what it was: there were a lot of cowboys taking a lot of risks without good reasons. It was a man's world, and as a Swedish woman she knew it would be an uphill battle to gain the respect of a field staff that attracted a lot of people with military backgrounds looking to make the lateral move to civilian life. It all encouraged recklessness as a means of moving up.

The problem was that risk — like speed — was relative, and in the humanitarian sector there was no marker to use, because everyone else was climbing without a rope along with you.

Arwood was her first clear reality check in a long time. He really scared her. He was the first person she'd seen who was heading toward disaster so obviously that she could measure her own distance from it. Without something to stop her progress, though — some wisdom, some insight, some tool — she was terrified she'd start walking into minefields, too. Not from bravery, but because of a slow acculturation to risk.

The TV was on. A girl with a twinkle in her eye was spreading a blanket over the twentysomethings on the floor. Eyes were closing, and hands were on the move.

‘The kitchen's in the back,' Märta said, walking past the adolescents.

She found a bottle of Jack Daniel's in the refrigerator with a masking-tape label that said,
LIQUID COURAGE
. It wasn't hers, and she didn't care. There was no ice, though the bottle was cold. She motioned to Benton to follow her to a dark corner of the tent where two black folding chairs faced a table that was too short to use, but they used it anyway and were lucky to have it.

‘Not exactly
La Rotonde
,' she said, ‘but it's what we have,' pouring them each a three-finger portion. She raised the white plastic cup to toast.

‘Skål,' she said.

‘Skål,' Benton answered.

They each drank half a cup.

The introductory music to
Magnum, P.I.
played — bum-Bum-BUM
BUM!
— and someone accompanied the music with a groan that lasted long enough to inspire clapping, followed by laughter that rang itself out. Magnum's deep voice emerged as the remaining sound as he explained how to become a world-class private investigator.

‘You wanted to talk?' Benton asked, seated. He was unsure what was happening. He was more concerned about Arwood, but Arwood was missing. No one had seen him after he'd disappeared into the Kurdish crowd. It was when Märta took the drink away from her lips that he noticed her hands were shaky. Her voice, though, was not, and her countenance was grave.

‘Your friend scared the shit out of me today.'

‘I'm sure you've seen worse.'

‘The thing about this line of work,' she said, ‘and I'm sure it's similar to yours, is that I know I can leave whenever I want. As much as I sympathise with these people, their problems are not my problems. But with your friend? I think that could happen to me.'

‘Arwood's going through some things.'

‘Like minefields.'

‘That's not what I meant.'

‘I'm sorry,' she said. She sipped her drink again. ‘What did you mean?'

‘It's been an especially hard month for Arwood. He's very young and very inexperienced. I don't think he understood until a few weeks ago what people do to each other on this planet, and how easily and often they do it.'

BOOK: The Girl in Green
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