by Daniel MacIsaac
“War is a field of uncertainty”
– Carl von Clausewitz
The company of Blue Berets surged into the village of ethnic Croats. Like a rogue wave, the unit rolled across the village square, past the narrow shadow of a bell tower, and swirled about the door of a stone tavern. The Canadian peacekeepers were hellbent on downing some cold lager. Their joints at hips, knees, and ankles were hot and swollen. To lighten the load on the trucks up in the Pass, they’d slogged through five miles of boot-sucking mud, through slick wallows of Balkan sludge.
In Bosnia, Croats were known friendlies, so the CO only left one soldier, a hapless driver, back with the parked convoy, and posted just one sentry outside the tavern. The stone-faced captain was the first to shove through the pub doors.
That day, the CO was ignoring all the regs against mixing alcohol and action. Duty and drink blurred. Soldiers blended firewater and firearms. Convoy drivers mingled bottles and throttles. That afternoon, the band of brothers followed their captain blindly into the no-man’s-land of a Balkan bar. Soon, the luckless driver, the beanpole of a sentry, and the company’s medic, Damien Shoal, were the only three men in the unit not whooping it up in the pub.
Shoal rambled up from the trucks to the vacant patio of a shabby eatery at the edge of the flinty square. He dropped into a rusted chair and watched the tall sentry’s military posture melt into a slouch under the late afternoon sun. Shoal hunched over, idly listening to the boys across the square in the squat tavern, their hollering muffled by the stout stone walls and the heavy wooden shutters closed against the heat. As drinks were knocked back, their voices diminished until they could scarcely be heard over the drone of a bristly fly haloing Shoal’s pale blue UN helmet cover. The bug plunged in a kamikaze stoop past the medic’s pockmarked cheek to land lightly on the back of his hand. He shook the insect off. The sentry sidled over to the shady side of the building. Out of sight.
An iron-haired woman shuffled up to Shoal. He ordered coffee. Just coffee. The woman grunted, Kava? He nodded. She brought him black swill in a chipped white cup, gripped tight in a broad, peasant hand. The loose sleeve of her rough-spun blouse, rolled up, exposed a small black cross tattooed near the tendons of her wrist. Carefully, she placed the brimming cup on the table. Liquid trembled, quivered, but nothing slopped over. He tasted the dark brew. It had a burnt-wood whiff of chicory and the bitter taste of crushed dandelion root.
Kava. Shoal drank nothing stronger. A lesson learned from his stepdad who, fresh out of camp, rotgut swilling in his belly, had set fire to their mobile by falling into a drunken stupor and dropping his lit roll-yer-own on a messy pile of biker mags.
Shoal raised his head. Across the Bosnian valley, karst mountains loomed, vast slabs of limestone glistening. Below, the uncropped meadow glinted green. Above, black birds circled, swirled. He dropped his gaze and took off his helmet, flipping that shell over and over in his hands. Then he placed the steel pot, bottom up, on the splintered table. The webbing inside was wet with sweat.
Shoal’s knees ached from the mud march earlier in the day when he’d been hoofing it through the mountain pass where the Canadian Forces trucks had bogged down. Peace, stuck fast in the Pass. Every soldier — from the craggy captain to the greenest private — had been keen to get through. Behind them, on the far side of the Pass, had been Death. By fire. And by water. In this fierce tribal land of festering memories and fresh outrages, peacekeeping was a bitch.
On the dark side of the Pass, the convoy had rumbled toward a Muslim village, reported to have been shelled by the Serbs in an attack three nights back. As the sun crested the mountains, the company had pushed past a ruptured gate and collapsed pillars. That Bosniak village, which was divided by a steep ravine, was almost completely burned out. Razed. Black heaps of rubble like giant briquettes of charcoal. Any walls still standing were honeycombed with blast holes. Under some fallen beams, embers pulsed. The odd flame licked. Nothing unscathed. Even the slim marble headstones in the graveyard had been toppled and seared, lying helter-skelter like scattered artillery shells. The truck drivers inched along, tires crunching on cinders, and pulled over near the town square across from a stone well. The CO ordered patrols up the side streets to look for survivors. They found scorched corpses but nobody living.
No wounded to attend to, Shoal had leaned his elbows on the stone edge of the well and peered into the depths. At a mass of long black hair. A sodden cotton nightgown. A girl, floating face-down. He shouted for the captain, who strode over, took a quick look and barked at the private sitting in the nearest parked truck to bring over a length of broken metal gutter that angled up from a pile of rubble. The gutter’s end cap had been twisted by heat into a crooked prow. Shoal and the private eased the gutter down a dozen feet and hooked the hem of the nightgown which peeled up as they pulled. The prow bunched the cloth high, under the girl’s arms and across her back. Hand over hand, they were able to yank her up and sling her out. The bare legs swinging pale, with a shadow between. What was she? Thirteen? Twelve? The men had clustered around, muttering.
Shoal tugged the nightgown back down to the girl’s shins. Her toes and fingers were bloated and torn. Had she taken refuge in the well from the firestorm? After, had she clawed at the slick stones but could not get out? Still floating in the water were black bits, perhaps charred rope. How long before she drowned?
The private leaned in beside Shoal’s ear and hissed, Nice catch –
Shoal growled, Shut the fuck up.
The CO motioned to the graveyard and said, Get her buried, and walked off, his face granite.
As the captain wandered up a rubble-strewn side street, the private tilted his head in his direction and asked, What’s with?
Shoal watched the captain hunker down in front of a torched sedan, just a warped hulk. He answered, Got a daughter back home about the same age as that Croat girl. They say his daughter has CF.
The private squinted. Blinked.
Shoal added, Cystic fibrosis. A death sentence—and he’s over here. A gluey mucus clogs up your lungs and airway. Chokes you. Death by drowning.
Peacekeeping could be a bitch. But sitting at a patio table in an untouched Croat village, in a quiet valley, Shoal might just ease off. Unwind. As he scanned the clean and unspoiled square, he drifted toward calm. The only mark on the flint out there was the shadow cast by the bell tower. He dug his fingers through mud-spattered camo into the thick tendons around each kneecap, kneading. The medic looked up again at the bright mountains.
Raised in the Comox Valley of Vancouver Island, Shoal had always had mountains at his back. But in his childhood and youth, he had eyes only for man-made wonders. War birds. Howling Voodoos. T-tailed, turbocharged interceptors that hit over Mach 1.7. Countless boyhood hours he’d spent watching and listening spellbound by a squadron of big bold machines bellowing out of the 19 Wing base by the sea. Above field and forest, the fighters roared, charging the white mass of the Comox glacier, then arced away to cascade down to the grey strait. Ancient ice deflected space age metals. Titanium and tungsten steel veered and dropped, booming over the ocean.
At sixteen, Shoal had gone up in the gliders, ridge-running and riding thermals with the Air Cadets. By eighteen, he was ready to sign up for the Regular Forces–but not as an airman. His astigmatism, even corrected by contact lenses, meant Shoal would never be a fighter jock. Even piloting one of the air barges – Herc transports – was out of the question. Shoal had mulled over becoming an aviation mechanic. He had the hands for sheet metal bashing and for soldering delicate wires; but he considered those tradesmen just glorified grease monkeys caged in a hangar. And flight surgeon? He didn’t have the brains or the brass balls needed to calibrate human error at a crash site and bust some asses. He didn’t have the don’t-give-a-shit judgment to cull the duds and decide who had the right stuff to defy gravity on a flight day. So Shoal trained as a combat medic.
Canuck peacekeepers were short on field medics. And in Bosnia every doc wore out fast. Shoal had been a quick pick for overseas duty. He didn’t have family to squawk. No army wife moaning about raising the brats by herself. His mother, stuck in a Comox care home, had early dementia, unable to recognize her only child. And his stepfather, a logger in the steep coastal forest, had got his head torn off in a cable-snap not long after the trailer blaze. Plus, Shoal was no shirker. The guy was keen to see action.
Come spring in Bosnia the medics were stretched so thin on the ground that Shoal got his first tour of duty. Overseas with the Blue Berets, he fit right in, seeing a lot of action. Maybe he saw too much, having to restock his kit every week. Still, he felt he belonged in the company, with all the boys calling him Ice. Shoal wasn’t sure how he got the nickname or why it stuck. Maybe because he’d barely crack a smile, even when he first got into the shacks and some lone bone came up to him, banging two combat helmets together and hooting, Don’t that sound like two turtles fuckin? Or maybe because no war wound seemed to spook the medic – neither a near miss from a sniper gouging an angry tattoo across a bone-pale brow, nor the festering stump of a crippled child, a stub fetid with flies where the coltish limb used to be. Most likely it was the stash of chipped ice, purloined from the mess, that he kept in a cooler under his cot. All his cold-packs long gone, he stuffed ice in a latex glove and shoved that into the toe of an itchy army sock to press against all those bruises and scrapes not ugly enough for a stitch or a pill.
On Shoal’s watch, nobody went out in a body-bag. But one gunner got creased by shrapnel high on the neck, just under the rim of his helmet, and a bunch of the boys tore up flesh on the rocks when scrambling for cover. Some cornflake got jumped – shanked in an alley. Wrong girl, very, very wronged relatives. Shoal stopped the gusher, but swore he’d fuck up the treatment next time if the private went chasing tail again in a Rock-Eater bar. He’d stitch up the shit rat’s nutsack so tight he’d shriek like a steam whistle. The company was always in harm’s way, and Shoal’s job was the body work. He was all business, no bloody band-aid tech.
But Shoal couldn’t do much about grunts losing their grip. Over the past month, four men from the company had been flown out to the headshrinkers. The hard faces of those soldiers twitched, and sometimes their gnarled fingers jerked, pulling triggers in the air. Soon enough, more casualties would be processed by the wizards at CFB Lahr. Unfucked, maybe. Out of Shoal’s hands. Good men got worn down to beasts. Stuck useless in camp at night while one reb group rounded up the other. At first light, crossing through barbed wire coiled around the camp, fingers tensed on carbines, teeth clenched tight as bullets in a cartridge clip. Finding in an irrigation ditch a heap of guts like a ball of snakes. Or seeing against a school wall an arching spatter of brains like obscene graffiti. Or just waiting for some hotshot Serb commander to get cocky and accidentally-on-purpose fire mortar rounds. Not much peace of mind for peacekeepers, children of God left in the lurch. Unblessed. Hard hats of robin’s egg blue—poor boys’ protection. Still, that afternoon Shoal counted himself lucky to be in a quiet place off the map in a village of ethnic Croats.
In the valley, the company was at ease. The useless driver was sure to be catching z’s on a truck seat. The sentry was lazing away in the shade. The rest of the ratpack was numbing their nerves in the tavern. Shoal would have no use for his Browning pistol, buried somewhere deep down in his pack under his kit. And he stayed put, outside the pub, safe from pissing guys off by turning down vodka shots, just one fuckin’ drink. The coffee wasn’t cutting it. His head throbbed. Maybe he was still queasy from the diesel fumes he’d sucked in while helping muck out a two-ton truck stuck up in the Pass and that goddamn hemorrhoid kept gunning the engine.
Later on, that same bonehead private, the driver of the last truck in the convoy, had jolted his vehicle to the front of the line, aiming to shorten his walk by parking closer to the Croat pub. Yawing to the side of the village road, he’d scraped a front tire against the barbed wire fence separating road from pasture, just about tearing out the sidewall. And the front fender had hooked a couple of strands and yanked out one of the posts. The post dangled, leaving a gap. Good on the CO for ordering the dickhead to stay back and guard the parked trucks. Shoal looked over at that gnarly parking job, into the light of the lowering sun.
The medic groaned. Headache tightened. Clamped. What to do but squeeze his eyes shut, jack his head back. With his helmet off and a fresh breeze up, ache gradually eased, giving way to a daydream of deep sky seen from a cockpit, fluent wings tilting to bank against a looming range. Again, he was riding the dragon, that armored, fire-belching fighter.
Tinkling of bells broke his musing. Below him, down the stony road near the parked convoy, a cluster of lop-eared sheep jingled and clattered. A boy scraggly as a scarecrow hustled out from behind a tumbledown building. With a long stick, he jabbed at the ribs of the errant ewes, forcing the small flock together and prodding them into a trot. Watching that boyish poking, Shoal shifted his weight forward — and felt a twinge of pain. He reached down and rubbed at sinew, digging in. The flesh around each kneecap was puffy. Mild effusion. From overuse. Too many klicks humping over the Pass.
A soot-faced lamb, dashing away from its dam, bolted off the flint and ducked between the army trucks. It squeezed through the gap torn in the fence to gambol on the lush meadow. The flock halted. Once, twice, three times, the thin boy shrilled. He batted at the shuffling sheep to keep them bunched together on the road while the impudent lamb bounced about in the tall grass. The scamp galloped. It tossed its head, unruly with curls, as it barreled through the blades.
The lamb hurtled on until grassland geysered in an eruption of turf and stone. The animal was flung twisting. It landed hard on green pasture, its bleat rising to a piercing screech. The rest of the flock convulsed and shot down the stony road. The scrawny boy, yowling, scrambled to follow.
Spooked by the explosion, Shoal slammed his fists up against the table. He pulled his hands out and away. The knuckle at the base of each thumb reddened, bled. Perhaps the whole pasture was a minefield. What a clusterfuck. Smoke, reeking of burnt metal and sulfur, roiled over the field. He berated himself for getting so dreamy, so caught up. The signs were there to be seen: the empty meadow, the uncut brilliance of the grass.
The blast also brought the company out of the bar, half-plastered but at a ragged run. The gangly sentry staggered out of the far shadows. A sudden weariness seized Shoal. But he pulled himself up and plodded past the troops as they scuttled through the square. The soldiers huddled and wrangled by the trucks, yammering over whether to shoot the fuckin’ goat—put it out of its fuckin’ misery or whether to just let the lamb be—that’s no fuckin- goat–and and it’s dyin’ anyways. Helmets thumped together in a blur of camo and jutting rifles. But nobody took the shot. The CO looked in no shape to bawl out orders. And nobody saw Shoal trudging a sloppy diagonal into the domed and spired church at the far corner of the square.
The medic crumpled onto one of the cracked, dark wooden pews near the front of the nave. Over the limestone altar, the old stained-glass windows blurred – bleary survivors. The pressure in Shoal’s head surged, becoming massive as a busted slab. With thick, rough knuckles, he scoured his eyes and brow. In his skull, light detonated into a barrage of glassy shards.
Back by the ripped fence, some lame brain said maybe their medic could take charge while others argued that Shoal was no goat vet and that nobody was fool enough to inch out into that minefield. But they decided to hunt him down anyway. After lurching up and down the village, a gaggle-fuck clutching carbines and hollering out, Ice! Ice! the boys finally found him cramped and stunned in the pew.
The company took one look at Shoal and started disputing over how to get their shocked medic out:
Take ‘im by fuckin’ stretcher down to the convoy.
Fuck no, gun one of those trucks up here.
Cocksucker, just radio for a chopper to ride up right to the fuckin’ square and let a med take ‘im.
Fuckhead, we’re way too deep in Bosnia for that. Haul ‘im by truck to the Pass and medevac from there.
You douche, the way we chewed up that road you can’t casevac back up to the Pass. Too fuckin’ slow.
So what’s it gonna be? Just stand around moanin with your limp dicks in your hands.
What the fuck. Any way you run it, the whole evac’s gonna be a bitch.
While they cussed in shit-faced circles, Shoal rose clumsily to his feet, strobe lights pinwheeling in his skull. He snarled, Gimme a sec, you stupid bastards. Just a sec. It’s a migraine. Just a fuckin’ headache. And you bunch of dipshits bringin’ it on.