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By Darcy Moline
We journalists enjoy a kind of invulnerability in war. We feel as if we wear a magic cloak that protects us not only from bullets whizzing past, missing us because we are invisible to them but also from the enmity of the combatants. One had only to show the camera and their faces would light up, and they'd murmur, "Yes, come closer. Tell my story . . . mine." When even the businesslike vendors of death welcome you as if to a bridal banquet, you feel you can go anywhere and do anything.
Of course Ernie Pyle was killed at the front in the World War. We all know about him, but he's like our patron saint, our holy martyr. Have you ever seen the old clip of his last piece of film, with the camera spinning as he fell, its impersonal eye lying askew at last, looking at nothing? A dead man's eye. My own eyes were wet as I watched it.
And there are others who have died. We know their names and stories. In Korea. In Nam. Yes, and Pearl. But those were aberrations; we ourselves led charmed lives.
Or did, until we came here.
Teddy and Paul were the first. They'd gone out together rather early in the morning, probably with nothing much on their minds but black coffee and pastry. There's an open air market in a district just beyond the main square where two old women used to sell some rather nice fruit tarts a kind of strudel pastry filled with apricot paste. I'd liked it myself; a deliciously flaky crust with a sweet, chewy center. One had to get there early, or it was all gone.
But that morning, there were other things going down in the square besides pastries. They ran right into some kind of gathering where there was a lot of shouting and raised fists. And of course Paul was lugging his little over-the-shoulder, so he hoisted it up and turned its bright, impersonal eye on them all. Within half a minute they were all shouting, "Spy!"
Ted, when we saw him that night at the hospital, was not very clear about it, but I gather Paul never realized what was happening until the barbed-wire chain of bullets cut him apart. They may have been aiming for the camera, but they missed that completely and sliced open his body at a falling angle from left shoulder to right hip, splitting him open in the process. Through his broken lips, Ted kept telling us that as Paul fell, he had first gone down on his knees as if he were praying. "And I shouted, 'Get up. Get up they're firing' . . . But he couldn't get up, because he was killed already."
Poor old Teddy. His face was all broken and bruised and he died too, that night.
Frank and I filed the story. I had declared myself Paul's heir and taken possession of the uninjured film. We added some footage of poor Teddy in the hospital bed, and Frank did an affecting voiceover for it, and the networks bought it all. Some of it they used the same night, and the rest ran on some kind of special about a month later. Powerful stuff, the silent faces distorted with rage, the fists. You can see the guns coming up. I didn't doctor the speed, but even so those muzzles were lifting and aiming with such a graceful, balletic, slo-mo effect that Joseph and the others swore I edited it all.
After some thought, I'd left in the last few seconds, that moment of stillness when you're seeing only feet and broken stones, before I cut to Ted's bruised face. A nice piece, if I do say so Saint Ernie Pyle would have approved.
I suppose we were like cannibals feeding on our own dead, but at the time it seemed quite natural that we should all be grain in the same mill. I think Frank used those exact words to describe us, but he never hesitated to file the story with me.
Frank and I came here together last year. We had met in the Far East two years ago, both on assignment, and liked each other at once. We teamed up on a couple of pieces that were well received, and after that we became as close as lovers. (Or perhaps we'd known each other before that. I forget.)
Certainly I knew he had a wife at home, but it didn't matter. One doesn't think about it. One lives in the now. But he was not a loner like me, and when they called him home he went willingly. He'd had enough of this place, and maybe enough of me as well. Anyway, he told me about it on a Monday and on Wednesday he was gone and I was solo again.
That was a bad time. I have to admit that I mourned his leaving considerably more than I had mourned for Paul and Teddy. (It's the living we grieve over anyway.) But it was not just that I'd lost a friend. With him gone, I had no partner, and film footage is not enough. I need somebody to put the words in; I'm no writer.
After that there were other incidents. Nobody else was killed, but you could feel the difference. Quite a few of the syndicates called their veteran people home, and one missed their familiar faces. The new people who came kept talking about the violence. And supplies were harder to come by.
In the streets I began looking at the locals in a new way. The old people seemed so unconcerned, but glancing at their seamed faces, I found myself wondering how they had managed to live so long in all this. And seeing the children, I asked myself how long they had before the bullets stitched their eyes shut for good.
So I took to staying at an old house were we all used to meet. I never knew who owned it, but it was almost like a clubhouse for us. There were two or three typewriters and a laptop or two in one of the front rooms, and phones in the other. The cellar, in spite of a dirt floor, was rigged as a darkroom and you could process black and white film there not that anybody did much of that, but it was like a habit. A hobby.
There were two big rooms vacant upstairs, and one day I just brought my things and moved into one of them. There was always somebody in the house, and that made me comfortable. I'd gotten lonely, you know.
But one morning I woke up itching in places I couldn't reach. And all day I couldn't seem to stay put, and yet I couldn't bring myself to go outdoors. The weather was still and heavy. None of the locals came near the house. Even the streets were deserted.
For the past month, two young women had been staying in the room next to mine. One was named Marie (she was French I think, although she spoke almost unaccented English) and the other was called something like Naomi, heavy-set, but with a pretty, light face. I think they were feeling the same unease I felt, but in the afternoon, they wanted to go out for a while.
They asked me to come along, but I tried to persuade them to stay, because I had the oddest premonition that they wouldn't be safe if they left us. But they were determined.
There were more than a dozen people downstairs that afternoon, smoking, using the phones, having a drink or two, very companionable. The two women stood around talking to one of the Brits who had just come to town. He was a real virgin among us, and one of the sharp-tongued fellows had dubbed him Good Golly, because of his innocence. He was fair, and blond, and young, and the girls obviously liked him. Naomi especially. She kept putting a hand on his shoulder and laughing at everything he said. She would have stayed if he asked her, but he had a story to write, so she went with Marie.
When I saw they were finally going, the feeling was so strong that I actually went after them. There was a woody, flowering vine that grew over the porch and I broke off a spray of it and went after them carrying it. I had a crazy idea that if they were carrying flowers it would be like a sort of talisman that would protect them. I think they were amused, but they took the garland with them, to please me. And it was pretty, so why not?
At the last minute Marie turned back and tossed me one of the blossoms and called, "If it's for protection, then you should keep one of these, no?"
She was laughing at me but like me she was also remembering Paul and Teddy. I thanked her and put it in my pocket, just idly, because I didn't plan to go anywhere at all that day.
I hung around downstairs for a while, but it was stuffy from their dammed cigarette smoke, and finally, just for something to do, I went down to the darkroom in the cellar to develop some stills.
While I was there, I heard some firing, but it was not very loud. I don't know why it wouldn't have sounded louder, down there. I don't know why they never came down and found me. It was logical they would have. But they never even tried the door.
I suppose I thought the gunfire was in the street. And I had gotten interested in what I was doing. Also, in a darkroom, you know, the red light is sacred. One never opens a door when one is in the dark, lest one expose the film and ruin it.
But at last I was done, and I came out and found them.
All dead. Even the pretty young Brit, fallen half out of his chair, blood on his blonde-white mustache, blood on the paper in his typewriter.
All killed but me.
Not a mark on me. Unscathed. Unharmed. Untouched. A real Flying Dutchman.
Of course, they closed down all the offices after that, and the only ones who come here now are transients. Nobody's permanent.
Having nobody to go home to, I stayed. Because I keep coming back to the same thought again and again: Was it the flower in my pocket or am I one of the safe ones? Because you know, it's funny, but I do feel safe now. Nothing can hurt me, ever again.
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