on top of the hill
Jaap elbowed Wim and pointed up the hill through the pines to a black shape that seemed to be caught in the branches. It was nearly one hundred meters up the embankment, rough hewn rocks and gravel for the first half of the distance between them and the shape, thick pine brush and trees the second half. They stopped the jeep, called back to their camp and told them they would check it out. Roeland sat in the back with the gun, wondering why they stopped. He saw where they were pointing, looked, shrugged, then lounged back in his seat.
“How’d he get up there?” wondered Jaap.
“How do we get up there?” Wim said.
They began to scramble up the slope; Roeland stayed with the jeep. A small boulder flipped past Wim, who was behind Jaap, grazing him across his helmet. It almost knocked him down, but his hand clutched a protruding root in time to secure his balance.
“Watch those big cloggy feet of yours, Jaap.”
“Sorry, Wim. It’s loose.”
“I know it’s loose. Just watch it.”
They finally reached the tree-line, and sweating from the exertion, stopped and took swigs off their canteens. Jaap took an oiled rag from his pack and began cleaning his rifle.
“Can’t that wait?” Wim asked.
“Ja. It can wait. But it looked dirty.”
“You’re turning into a Yank.”
Jaap continued cleaning the barrel for a minute, then stuffed the rag back into his pack. He glanced over his shoulder, up the hill.
“Ah. Poor bastards,” said Jaap. “They must get sick of having to stay in camp all the time.”
“Can’t blame them.” Wim took off his helmet and set it on top of the pack that rested against the cedar beside him. “They can’t even go to Prizren for a drink.”
Wim pulled out a pack of cigarettes and began smoking. He didn’t offer one to Jaap.
“Do you have to do that around me?” asked Jaap. He’d quit smoking a week before he came to Kosovo for the enforcement of peace after the NATO air strikes. He hadn’t had a cigarette in a month. His mouth twitched and he bit his lip every time someone lit up near him. He’d promised his girlfriend he would quit, promised her he would keep everything clean.
“Ha, at least I’m not taking orders from a girl.”
“Shut up, kut.”
Wim laughed. “Is that all you think about? Cunts? I’ve seen you in the shower, Jaap. It isn’t smoking that she is on your ass for. You have a shriveled little pik. She’s probably screwing some Moroccan back in Rotterdam right now, one with a bigger pik!” Wim measured a large distance with his hands.
“Fucker. She wouldn’t do that.”
Wim laughed again. He offered Jaap a cigarette, grinning wryly. Jaap finally took one, his fingers shaking, lit it and inhaled deeply.
“Good, eh?” asked Wim, still grinning.
“Lekker,” he said, breathing out.
They sat and smoked and Wim looked up the hill to the shape in the trees, swinging lightly in the breeze. They could hear the faint creaking of the rope.
“Going to go to university next fall?” Jaap asked, savoring his smoke.
“I’m going back. Going to study Humanistics.”
“What?” asked Jaap.
“The meaning of life, eh?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Shit, Wim. What are you going to do?”
“I said I don’t know. But not that.”
They were silent for a few minutes. The wind started to pick up, blowing cool from the valley to the north.
“We’d better go get him down.,” Jaap said.
“He’s not going anywhere.”
“We can’t just let him swing up there. It’s getting cold, too.”
Wim lit another cigarette. Jaap watched him smoke, then grabbed the pack from the ground, and lit one for himself. They heard a rifle volley to the north and perked up. Wim put his helmet back on.
“American sector?” Jaap asked.
“I think so.”
Wim stood, stubbed his cigarette out under his boot, then shouldered his pack. Jaap did the same, and they started through the pine brush up the hill.
When they reached the tree, they found the man hanging three feet off the ground, his neck broken from the noose he’d fashioned out of old rope. The log he’d used to trip himself with lay in the needles below his shadow.
“Is he a black, or is he just rotten?” asked Jaap.
“I think it’s the blood trapped in his head.”
Wim turned away. Jaap gagged.
“First one?” asked Wim.
“Yeah. You?” He spat.
“No. There was another about a week ago, before you came in. The Americans had at least seven this month.”
“They should let them out of camp more.”
Wim paced around below where the man was hanging, looking at the ground.
“Well, should be haul him in or call him in?” Jaap asked.
“We’ll call him in. They like to keep it quiet. Bad for morale. They don’t like the press to get wind of this stuff.”
“Yeah, they can’t stand body bags.”
“Didn’t lose one in the strikes. But here, number eight in the last month without even fighting.” Wim stretched his arm out and grabbed the foot, starting the body to swinging.
“Let’s go,” said Jaap. “It’s cold here.”
They started back down the hill, through the pines, darker now as the sun set behind the hills.
“You have a girl?” asked Jaap.
“Yeah, in Amsterdam. Where’s your girl?”
“Ne. Just studying there.”
They struggled through a bramble and onto the rocky slope. They heard another rifle crack from the American sector.
“Poor fuckers,” Jaap said.
“That’s what you get when you’re on top.”
“Still. Can’t help but feel sorry for them. We get twice as much time off as they do.”
They walked on, carefully down the escarpment. When they reached the bottom, Roeland was dozing in the back. Wim pounded the side of the jeep, startling Roeland awake.
“Wake up, you idiot,” Wim barked. “Get on the radio to the Americans. They have another early retiree.”
Roeland sleepily followed the order and called in the message. Jaap asked Wim for another cigarette and they stood smoking outside the jeep. A family of Muslim Kosovars slid past on a tractor, heading back north after having headed south last fall. They waved, and smiled. Old women, shawls wrapped around their heads; children waving American flags.
“Poor fuckers,” said Jaap, watching them head up the road and round the bend.
An American jeep sped past, around the bend from where the tractor had come and pulled to a stop next to the Dutch. Wim pointed up the hill and two soldiers hopped out the back of the jeep and started up the hill where Wim and Jaap had just come from. They watched them scramble and slip up the slope. Wim gazed to the sky above the hill. One by one, blackbirds were swarming into the area. There must have been thirty in the trees above were the American soldier hung. More were on their way.
“They’d better get him down soon,” Wim said to the driver.
The driver thanked them and started to turn the jeep around. Next to the driver was a female American soldier. Her head bowed, her chin to her chest. They honked and drove off to the north, back to where they had come from. Jaap and Wim stood watching them go.
“Was she crying?” asked Jaap.
“I didn’t see. Maybe that was her man.” Wim pointed up to the top of the hill. The two American soldiers were starting to enter the trees. “I wonder if they are sending her back. She could be knocked up.”
“I heard they had that problem. Maybe they should let them out more. Poor fuckers.”
Wim hopped in the driver’s side seat, and Jaap in the passenger’s side. Roeland eased back down in the back and bundled himself up. They drove south toward Prizren to check in. That night they a warm dinner at the café near their camp and afterwards beer and a game of darts. Later, Wim and Roeland took Jaap to his first brothel. So much for quitting cigarettes and keeping clean.
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