There’s a warm body on top of me, it’s arms wrapped lazily around me, as I lie on my chest. I can feel the grass tickling my cheek, hear the gunfire and shouting from elsewhere in the forest. The body sighs, and I jump with fear.
My violent twitch before I roll over shoots Sally across the bed. But it doesn’t wake her. By the time I’ve realised my panic was over a dream she’s settled into her new position and has a contented smile. The sheets have flipped back to reveal her breasts. I stroke them for a while to see if that wakes her.
She refuses to stir, but maybe I augmented her dreams. I pull the covers up to her shoulders and kiss her forehead before getting out of bed.
The nightmares aren’t a regular thing thankfully. It’s hard to tell when my subconscious is going to spit out something horrific, but I’ve been having more recently. Thankfully Sally is a heavy sleeper. Eventually she’ll wake enough to realise she has the bed to herself, but for now she’s blissfully unaware.
It’s cold out from under the covers. I pull on a few layers then wrap myself in the spare duvet that’s on the armchair. This has happened often enough that I have a laptop within reaching distance.
I’m going through the disks of photos I posted back from Europe, finding the most interesting ones for possible publication. None of them is going to match up to my Paris photo for dramatic impact, but I’m finding some interesting stuff. I’m paring down the original photos, finding the ones I like the best, and putting them into a ‘Maybe’ folder. At the rate it’s filling up I’ll probably have ten times more images than I could fit in any sensibly sized book.
I open the next folder to be rifled through. Immediately I’m confronted by the image of a dead American soldier face up in a field of oil seed rape. There’s a small ragged hole in his forehead just below the rim of his helmet and a horrible red and pulpy mess all over the bright yellow flowers behind him that had been the contents of his skull. He looks annoyed about the whole situation.
It’s not hard to see where my nightmares are coming from.
The rest of the pictures in the album put the dead soldier into context. Driving along a stereotypically French road a Stryker team had been hit by heavier weapons than they thought the locals possessed. They had been making a charge toward the next town to raid and pillage, based upon reports that it was unprotected, unaware that they had been suckered into a trap. I had been in the town when the ambush occurred, under orders to stay put and not try to head toward the fighting. But they had led me out to what was left the next morning.
There are a lot of pictures of burnt out vehicles and dead soldiers. One in particular stands out. The last vehicle in the convoy, a Stryker armoured car, tipped slightly over and slewed across the road it is framed wonderfully by the receding trees. It’s not a beautiful picture, given the subject, but it is striking. It and the dead soldier in the field go into the maybe folder.
Theres another file amongst the photos. After photographing this particular battle I’d had enough time to take down the names of the dead, at least the ones whose identification was still readable. There were websites that celebrated every American death, glorying and gloating over them, and there were others that tried to pass the information along to relatives as quickly as possible. I always sent casualty lists to the latter. Whenever I had found a victim of the conflict, from whichever side, I had tried to get a name and pass it on, working on the assumption that it was better for people to know the bad news sooner rather than later. The soldier in the oil seed rape field had been Private Leon Erren, aged 22, of Kansas. I don’t know what family he had, or how much he believed in the insane mission he died for, just the location and date of his death.
What had brought young Leon Erren from the state of Dorothy and Toto to die in a surreally yellow field in a country too many of his countrymen couldn’t find on a map? What were the stories of each of the nearly one hundred men and women killed in that ambush? Who would mourn them? At the time I didn’t dwell on those thoughts, but now I have the freedom to contemplate them. I could total up the bodies I photographed and find out how many died in my little part of the war, how many tales could be told. Then I could extrapolate, or investigate, and find out how many died in total, to put my experience in context. One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. Several million deaths? Maybe in a few years they’ll have a word for it.
There’s movement in the bed. Sally has woken enough to reach across for me and discover a warm but empty spot. She props herself up on her elbows and looks my way. She knows where I’ll be, and if she didn’t I’m lit by the laptops monitor. “Another nightmare?”
“And you’re looking at those pictures again aren’t you. That’s not going to help.”
“I know. But I’ve got to go through them.”
Do I scare her when I get lost in my war memories? It would seem not, because she slides out of bed and moves quickly to stand in front of me. I have just enough time to put aside the laptop before she’s forcing her way into my duvet. I wrap it back around her as she snuggles up to me. “Are you going to publish your pictures?” she asks my chest.
“I hope so. I can write about it all, but that mightn’t be enough. Some of my pictures have already been published, and not everyone’s paid me for them, so I could assert my ownership of them as well.”
“Is it all about money and glory?”
“No. A little bit is, I guess. But it’s also about trying to make sense of what happened.”
“If that’s ever possible.” She’s pulled the duvet over her head and is nuzzling my shoulder. I recognise this as horny Sally. She’s an odd girl, but I love her. “Come back to bed.” she tells my collar bone. “I’ll take your mind off the horrible pictures.”
“You already have.” I reach down between us, find the edge of her knickers and pull them aside. Her head pops out of the duvet, surprised but grinning.
“You naughty boy.” she says, working on my trousers and shifting her position, “On the chair?”
“Absolutely.” We kiss. Sweet dreams.