I guess my buddy almost lost his finger the other day. His girlfriend got pissed and slammed the door on his hand. They said it was hanging by one tendon. They say the doctors can save it, but it won't be perfect. It will take nine surgeries to reattach his right index finger. Still, I said to him, it's better than losing it altogether, right? As I said this I was wagging the stump that had once anchored the last two joints of a million-dollar trigger finger.
I lost mine a long time ago. There is a smooth white scar at my middle knuckle where the boy's teeth had slipped in between the bones. The kid was from Navara. I pried that kid's mouth open and there found the last two joints. This was before AIDS or I'd have left the thing right there. Navara was a scary place back then.
The water was rank; it smelled like—well, at first it took some getting used to being so far out. In the bars, they wanted to serve us American beer. And they always wanted us to have glass, no ceramic or cans, but there would always be a film of grease on the glasses, like the dishwasher was using the same water all day. We realized quick that the only things that wouldn't make us sick were bread and alcohol. I don't know; that's just what we said anyway. Usually there'd be a harp player or a guitarist, but the indians wouldn't sing if there were Americans in the bar. Still, the indian bars were preferred since they were cheap, and wasn't anything very clean anywhere.
We had two scouts in our group. The one in my team, second team, was a half-indian called Balou who led us through the jungle. He had the responsibility of keeping us away from the swamp water drainage and to minimize the signs we left behind as we moved. He usually was smiling, and it was pretty apparent that he liked his job. We stepped directly into the footprints of the person in front of us. "An old trick," he said, "but it works well to disguise our number." At first it was difficult to keep regular steps over the rise and fall of the trail, but we left behind a single set of big sloppy tracks like a giant from a fairy tale, just needed the long sweep mark of his heavy club dragging in the mud.
You've gotta think about the jungle like it hates you. It's not like you can sit down and hear some kind of you know "sounds of the rainforest" music and feel all quiet inside and want to close your eyes. It's just the occasional noise and every one just as scary as it can goddamn be and mud holding your feet so tight you'll have nightmares about it after. You start gritting your teeth almost right away, but the whole time here's this place all around you and looking down on you—not batting an eyelash, not giving a fuck.
The other scout was a white guy. He had a guide who was a full-indian with no military training that any of us had been told about. This guide shows up at first wearing a plastic garbage bag for a raincoat till we gave him a poncho. Those two took off over the grasslands to the west, dragging up dry blades to build camouflage as they went. They arrived nine hours ahead of us to stash camouflage and keep surveillance.
"The men may have been snooping around in the jungle or following us." The scout didn't really look bothered that his synopsis wasn't making much sense. "-or they may be in sniper positions. In nine hours, we've only seen two men, and for a second only. It's not possible to see all the doors at once, so we can't be certain of where they are. No signs of weapons and no sign of the Jesuit."
The point op looks as annoyed as the scout should have been. "Is he not here?"
So the indian makes a face at the scout like ‘are we in trouble or what?' and the scout says "No, the women were talking about him. We think he's near, probably hiding in one of the huts. We're not unexpected, you know. I mean they're out here for a reas--."
So the point op just interrupts him, and we set ourselves up. The edge of the jungle was like a line of massive hardwoods, dark trees, so inside the jungle was a shadow all day. But on the other side of those trees, the sawgrass was burning bright in the sun. So we held our last meeting there in the shadows before dressing up in the homemade camo and moving out to separate positions.
We moved slowly, a couple of feet per minute if the wind was blowing, more slowly if the grass was still. In four hours I crawled just less than a hundred and fifty yards.
What's funny is in a movie, I'll see somebody crawling' like that, and they got the look in their eye like they're a tiger. So I've been down there a lot of times like that, and I didn't ever feel like some fuckin' tiger on the hunt. I don't know how tough you are, but you're going to feel like a fat ass dragging your legs across the ground like that. With my chin less than six inches off the ground, I crawled, every six feet raising my head to look forward over the high grass. On knees and hands through the sawgrass toward the small shacks in the village. The refugees had added on to an old airstrip, so these mud and dry grass huts were shining in the sun. We'd spotted it—the site—two days before from the highlands. We'd been in the jungle less than twelve hours—less time to be lost in the dark growth, less time to stumble into some malaria or other viral disease. These were the things that concerned us, the mud, the flies, and the mosquitoes. Getting the priest was like pinning the tale on the donkey. Did you ever play that game at a birthday party? --except we weren't playing blindfolded.
In the jungle we stalked steady, same pace for twelve hours, then separating and crawling into position. We had people to the north and the east. See, if you put guys all the way around, shooting through mud and straw, it's just like shooting right at your own guys. It was hard when you're crouched in the grass, to stay afraid. Fear is where discipline comes from. If you're not nervous, you can't pay attention to the right things, and shit gets done wrong. It made me nervous, I guess, to know everybody out there was so easy about the whole thing. In the grass, I sat, steaming hot and sweating under the heavy camouflage. There seemed to be so many of us guys there. There were sixteen guys in position around this shitty little camp of fifty campesinos. Campesino means person that doesn't have any land, peasant—you know, in this case, poor as shit.
They were mostly kids, running everywhere. Running out of the jungle, chasing each other in the grass. Some of the guys were less than ten feet apart. So, it was only a matter of time. No men appeared in three hours, much less the priest. So, I'm there thinking, how the hell did I get here? What kind of bad thing is going to come out of this? We had this easy plan that wasn't really working out as far as I could tell.
I started listening as hard as I could for any male voice. Just a few words of bad Spanish, anything like that. We sent birdcall messages back and forth. Sometimes they'd just whistle something as a joke—I'm hurt, we're trapped, heads up on this kid, whatever. Someone starts and then two or three guys want to play along. Then the point op would shut them up somehow for a little while till they'd get bored enough again.
Later, the full indian we had in the group would talk about how the kids had started calling us tullayllu, magic bird, the scout of the nakak, throatcutter. It's like one of those stories that the old kids don't believe, but they tell the little kids just to scare them anyway. The little ones all stood out in the grass crying. They were all around us crying.
The older children shouted in Quechua—No! It's not safe! We can't let you in. Nakak is coming. Stay in the grass. Caw like crows. Dance like chickens, only tullayllu can protect you. Now is this starting to come clear? It was a nightmare going on. And, goddam nothing had even happened yet.
How could we know? No one was speaking Spanish. Even the women cooking were speaking Quechua. I was praying that dinner would be ready, that they would all gather around the priest before dinner, for a prayer or something. If they ran out of wood maybe they would send the kids out into the jungle to find more.
The kids were just standing all around us crying. The whole scene was wrong. I could see almost nothing from the position I was hiding in—lying on my side, one elbow on the ground. Then, through the grass I see one of the others, the half-indian, Balou, that damn fool, hanging out into a clearing. He was trying to get closer to the women, to hear what they were saying in Quechua. I heard a short whistle come from behind one hut. In the clearing, the half-indian's camo was too dark. He was far out of position.
The young indians started throwing rocks in at the older boys. The older ones were just laughing, swatting at the rocks or trying to catch them. No!—they shout back out. – it's not safe in here! Even for tumbapachitos. Rockthrowers. Get lower, crouch down in the grass, hide! The older boys were yelling. We can still see you! It's not safe!
Another whistle came from the other side of the village. Our point operative was out of sight, but I heard him call for the half-indian to improve his position. I watched too many of those kids' heads turn at the sound of his call. "Tullayllu!" one of the older boys called, but from the other side of the camp a very young boy was screaming, running toward camp, toward his brothers, I think. I knew we were blown out, and I heard the muffled clap of the point op's silencer, and everything goes silent.
For a second, I didn't think I could get enough air. I felt like I had plastic stretched across my face. I blinked my eyes hard over and over and could see most of the boys standing frozen. Some staggered back, backwards into the camp. Others looked more concerned with the little ones in the grass, looking back and forth silently, as if the next sound would start people dying.
With the other soldiers, I stood up. I dumped my camouflage and watched as the point op waved us on to different shacks. I stepped forward through the sawgrass.
People were screaming now. Mothers knelt down, squeezing the children into little huddled knots, crying and praying. They crossed themselves without looking up at us. Even those women standing and screaming for their kids, refused to acknowledge us. They looked past us, around us, at the ground mumbling, at the sky pleading, but not at us. But some of the kids just looked like they were going to try to take us down. Maybe they really thought if they were angry enough that some way or another they could charge and tear us to shreds. One kid was showing all his teeth, taking these huge slow breaths, and letting his hands hang down like monster's claws, and one of the little ones, one of the tumbapachitos, was waving the knuckles of one fist and squeezed a rock in the other.
I never heard the kid behind me, not until the last second when he charged into the back of my knees. He was probably seven or eight years old. The kid's eyes were huge and white, glowing out against his brown face. I pulled my finger off the trigger and slammed the butt into his chest. His t-shirt showed Donald Duck grinning at a strawberry ice cream cone. He grunted and cursed me so violently in Quechua. As he tried to run past me, I reached out and with almost one finger only grabbed him by the face. For a moment he could have twisted free, my grip was so loose, but he was small. I pulled him back against my chest, covering his face with my right hand and reached over, freed my revolver with my left.
The soldiers were walking in slowly with raised leveled rifles. The point op waved the half-indian forward. "We need to talk to the priest. Where is the priest?" he asked in Quechua. Several indian women were looking now. One of them, with kids, was wailing on her knees in the dirt.
It all felt ridiculous. The priest hadn't even been spotted yet. I didn't think he was still there. Keeping the boy's mouth covered, I held the revolver to the side of his head. "Priest! Priest!" I shouted. "Padrecito! Padre, vamos! Ahora! Now!" None of the men had showed. The oldest boys weren't sixteen.
"Let's go padre, goddamn it, now." I was yelling out into the open air. I felt like God was watching me. I was getting mad thinking that priest has got to be hearing all this.
The women's prayers were growing louder around us. The boy in my arms had not stopped struggling. Really, he seemed to be getting stronger. The soldiers looked frozen in place. Most of them had lowered their rifles to waist level, but kept there hands on the triggers. The kid in my arms was writhing like mad. I could feel his tears slipping in between my hand and his skin, wetting my grip. "No! No!" he was screaming into my palm. The point op started backing men away. The assassination plan was off; blown cover, no priest.
"Padre!" I shouted, "You can save this boy! You can save him, padrecito!" The boy was like a wild dog. "I've got the boy. I've got the" The boy bit down on my right index finger hard. So with these women's prayers all around me, I pressed the barrel against his temple. "Priest! Priest! . . Get out here!" A door opened slowly. I couldn't see inside when the boy's teeth sunk into the second knuckle of my right hand. Those flat little teeth sunk deep into the soft between the bones. I breathed out a huge silent body full of air and tried not to panic. I was completely oblivious when the boy reached up and pulled the trigger. When I think about it now, I don't know really know what it looked like from where I was. The shot blew apart the right side of his skull where the bullet exited. I remember thinking at first that the drops of blood on my face were all tears knocked out of his eyes. It was somewhere; you know, I wasn't thinking much, but somewhere I wondered about all those tears.
I didn't notice it then, but almost immediately there was another shot from inside the open door. That shot had hit the half-indian in the forehead, right under the rim of his helmet, and so he would fall right there and lay there bleeding until he was dead.
There seemed to be indians everywhere then. I don't remember hearing anything except gunshots. I just sat on the ground with the boy's body. His shirt was blood-soaked in spots, but the left side was pristine. It didn't even look old or dirty like it had before. It looked new, but I realized it was ruined, that the blood wouldn't come clean. Most of the boy's blood was on me. I could feel the heat of it from my stomach to my knees.
The indians were running everywhere, and I could see that we were gonna kill them all. It took a long time because it was too much work to be done with automatic rifles. Stray bullets and crossfire are big issues. The rifles are also loud you know, and it was gonna take a long time.
I watched the guys walking back and forth between huts, thoughtfully, methodically making kills. Our bullets were what almost everybody was using in Latin America, so we wouldn't have to clean them up. I knew that some of the men were busy then brushing over our tracks. Others were gathering the camouflage and stuffing it into one of the shelters. I knew that scouts and snipers were in the jungle now tracking down the runaways and that we would burn the village before the sun started going down. It was actually easier since the walls are mostly mud, because we don't have to worry about the fires getting too big.
I didn't get up out of that grass forever. I stayed out there with the kid till I'd forgotten all kinds of things I'd been thinking about before.
The guys started talking a little after all the indians were dead. I couldn't hear anything but muffled gunshots and the sound of those women praying. It was that underwater feeling—standing right out in the middle of the sun.
We caught four men in the jungle and one in the shelter with the rifle. There were forty-seven total. The priest had been in the jungle the whole time. They found him sitting at the foot of a tree, and he looked one of them right in the eyes while another one shot him in the side of the head. The guy who killed him was a sniper. He didn't care; he'd done similar things before. None of the guys could say anything about the priest really, about how he acted.
By the time anyone got to the half-indian, he was comatose; so we stripped him, shot him again and left his body with the others.
We hike out; it's jungle, helicopter, plane, home.
Really—that's exactly what it feels like. It's meant to happen fast. It's so nobody sits around staring at the end of their rifle. I think trying to keep the finger alive was all I wanted to think about on the plane. One kid couldn't get over it. "Jesus, you damn fool, get over it. It's fucking gone." He came up once to blow a big mouthful of cigarette smoke on it. "Way gone. You need to get the fuck over it." Trying to keep blood flowing onto the end of that finger, I guess my arm went numb a few times. I guess it sounds funny now, but I don't know what I was thinking.