Arnon Grunberg
Onze oom

The man who killed Lina Siñani Huanca's parents was himself unable to have children, which is why he decided to adopt Lina Siñani Huanca. He didn't have to think about it long, the child was standing there in the semidarkness, looking at him as though she had easily guessed that he was the one leading the operation, as though she knew he was the one who would decide what happened next. Before he had time to say a word, the child must have realized that her fate was now his fate. From now on they would be linked forever, a link stronger than any tie of blood.
She was standing beside the wooden table, still covered with the remains of an evening meal. Used plates, cutlery, candles, a newspaper, a pan with some food left in it. The burned crust of some kind of casserole? Rice with bits of meat in it?
He had come out of the bedroom to see what was going on, where the sound was coming from and what that sound might mean, although the question itself was pointless – what, after all, could a sound like that mean? – and that was when he sensed her presence for the first time. She was standing a few meters away from him, but still, he had the feeling she was touching him. Even before he'd seen her, before the beam of his flashlight reached her face, he sensed that she was touching him the way a blind person does.
He had started his military career as a scout. He had been able to smell a person even before he saw him. And although that alertness had disappeared, although it had left him the way a lover leaves you, tonight it was back again. Stronger than before. If only for a moment, he regained the certainty that life was nothing more than the concentration with which one observes one's surroundings.
He had turned his flashlight on her, he had seen her braids, not for long, only long enough for him to decide that he needed more light.
She was standing in the same spot where she was standing now. He kept looking at her, while his subordinates wandered wordlessly around the house, while he aimed the flashlight at the floor in order not to blind her. For a moment he wondered whether she knew what had happened to her parents in the bedroom, but then he concentrated on her braids, the longest braids he had ever seen.
His men were scouring the house, searching for evidence, for anything that might be termed "incriminating", though that was hardly any reason for that anymore. It was a formality, but that was precisely what mattered to him. Formalities were all that stood between man and chaos. To his men he always stressed the fact that searching a house was no excuse for vandalism. The point was not to destroy as much as possible or to pinch valuables, the point was to find incriminating material. Sometimes his men were in a state of exhilaration. Not the exhilaration of alcohol or drugs, but the exhilaration of life itself, life as it was originally intended to be, the exhilaration of the destroyer.
The little girl was holding onto one leg of the table with her left hand. She was wearing yellow pajamas. Her braids were not only long, but thick as well. And her hair was black, so black it looked almost blue. He tried to estimate her age, but couldn't. He had no nephews or nieces, and the few acquaintances he had he always saw without their children. How could he estimate a child's age? He could do other things.
His father was an Anglophile, without ever actually having been to England. Occasionally he succeeded in getting his hands on scones, and on something that resembled clotted cream, and at Christmastime he bullied his wife into making Christmas pudding. The major's father spoke English only poorly, but was nevertheless convinced that English was the language of civilization. He'd never been much of a talker, but at times, and pretty much apropos of nothing, he would suddenly say: "Indeed." And his son was not to be called Antonio, like his own father, but Anthony.
At school he had been the only Anthony, in the army as well. He had learned to live with it. At most he sometimes thought that if ever he had a child he would give it a normal name, one it bear wherever it went.
Without taking his eyes off the girl, the major wiped the sweat from his forehead. Only one word occurred to him: "Indeed." He leaned his back against the wall and listened to his men's footsteps. How many times had he told them: "What we do demands discretion"? It was in this same provincial town that he had born, he had joined the army in order to see something of the world, to learn something, without the need for a grant or rich parents. He wanted to leave the provincial town which he had hated even as a young boy, and still did. The hatred had become no less sincere, only calmer at best. The hatred had taken on something comforting. You learned to live with it. He, in any case, had learned to live with it. The husbands of his two older sisters had both gone to college, but one of them was unemployed and the other one earned almost nothing, he could barely pay the rent. No, he had decided against the university soon enough, without ever setting foot over the threshold, and never regretted it. Perhaps the army wasn't everything he'd hoped for, they had promised him other things, they had promised him a different life, back at training camp, but anything was better than wasting away as a teacher at some village school. Besides, he earned good money, he had made a career for himself. Even the men who spoke sneeringly about him, and who didn't bother to lower their voices when he was within earshot, they knew he had made a career for himself, otherwise they wouldn't have gone to the trouble of speaking so disparagingly about him.
The army had given him a opportunity to escape. He had seized that opportunity with both hands, even though the escape itself had ultimately proved a disappointment. "Intelligent, but not brilliant," that's how the priest who'd taught them mathematics at school had characterized him. The description still struck him as accurate, although by now he could add: "Hard worker, disciplined, with social skills." By the latter he meant that, more than other soldiers, he was prepared to set aside his personal dislikes. An army was not a collection of individuals, each with their own agenda, an army like that would be doomed to disaster. A soldier served a higher purpose. At the start of his career Major Anthony had also had the gift of total alertness, the gift of being able to smell the other person before they actually appeared. That was something no one should forget, he himself would never forget it.
He turned his flashlight on a cupboard in the corner and saw porcelain plates, photos, a framed painting of a landscape. Then he pointed the beam at the floor, the light fell on his boots. He looked at them, dirty boots and badly in need of polishing. But there was mud everywhere, particularly in neighborhoods like these, particularly in the rainy season.
The major cleared his throat. Keeping the flashlight trained on his boots, he slowly raised his eyes. He moved his hand cautiously, the bundle of light now fell on the little girl's chest, her yellow pajamas. He looked her in the eye, this little girl who was his responsibility. "My name is Major Anthony," he said. "I'm in charge of this operation. What's your name?"
She didn't budge. Her braids hung motionless, her beautiful braids.
He wasn't much of a talker, and when he talked, especially to strangers, it was always something of a strain. The army wasn't a ladies' sewing circle. Too much talking went on as it was, as far as he was concerned, too much gossip. Talk was a symptom of decay.
The child looked at him. She stared at him, and her face betrayed absolutely no emotion, as though she had been mummified alive.

About nine hours before was when he'd heard that he would be the one leading this operation. It had been a fairly casual remark, it had come only after they'd handed him the sheet of paper containing some summary information about the suspect individuals. He couldn't help smiling whenever he heard the words "operation" and "lead" – he hadn't joined the army in order to play policeman.
One of the men assigned him was a young corporal he'd never seen before. A shiny face, and attached to that face was the corporal's long, skinny body.
"Where are you from?" the major had asked as they were getting into the jeep.
"From the mountains," the corporal had said.
"The mountains," the major replied. "I see."
It was one-thirty in the morning when they left the base: Major Anthony, the corporal and two soldiers he'd worked with in the past. His battalion was charged with arresting suspect individuals. That he, a major, still had to do the dirty work was probably due to the fact that he wasn't particularly popular. Not that Major Anthony was hated, not the way other officers were sometimes hated and slowly run into the ground by their subordinates. He had known them, had seen it from up close, how officers took the honorable way out and turned the gun on themselves once maneuvers were over.
Major Anthony was even loved by some, he thought, only not by the ones who really mattered. Not loved well enough to lead a life of ease, not like some other officers, many of them younger than he. That was why he had to go out in the middle of the night to do what other officers of his rank never had to do.
But he did it without qualms. Practical experience was important, perhaps even more so for an officer. His ambitions had always reached further than a desk job. A person charged with tracking down and arresting suspects had to look them in the eye himself sometimes, otherwise the work became hopelessly abstract. You had to see it for yourself, you had to smell the suspect individual in order to know why you were doing this job.
He was loyal, that above all: loyal to his father, even though he was more of an Anglophile than a father; loyal to his employer, even though his employer had demanded more from him than you could reasonably expect from an employee, but, above all, loyal to the state. A citizen is loyal to the state in which he lives, otherwise he's not a real citizen, and a soldier is twice as loyal as that, that's the way he saw it. The state was like a beloved family member, the state was like an uncle to him.
"But isn't the prisoner loyal to his cell as well?" his father had once asked. To Major Anthony the army was a trap, although he would never have admitted that to anyone.
There had been a power failure in the neighborhood where the suspect individuals lived. It happened all the time. No one knew exactly why; some people said the power company cut off the electricity to some neighborhoods at set times, others said the state turned off the electricity by way of collective punishment. Others claimed it was sabotage.
They sat in the jeep and they waited, at the corner of the street where the suspect individuals lived. The two soldiers were chewing gum, one of them blew bubbles without letting them pop. The corporal coughed a few times, until Major Anthony told him quietly: "Knock off the coughing, corporal." They waited, the major's orders were to arrest the suspect individuals at three o'clock in the morning. Punctuality was the secret of success. Before they drove out the gates he had explained it to his men one last time: "Arresting suspects is a question of waiting quietly and moving in at the right moment. You men not only represent yourselves, you not only represent my battalion, you men also act on behalf of the state and you have to act accordingly."
Upon which the corporal said: "All I've ever done in the army is wait."
The streets were quiet, no one was out after curfew. The major had vented his criticism, he had drawn his superiors' attention to certain abuses, so now he had to lead operations at which a lieutenant would turn up his nose. But that's not the way his superiors talked about it. They said: "You're an old hand at fieldwork."
That's right, he was an old hand at fieldwork.
From the jeep he had taken a good look at the house where the suspect individuals were supposed to be holed up. You couldn't see anything on the outside. You could never see anything on the outside.
The corporal coughed again, and Major Anthony whispered: "Now I want you to knock off the coughing, corporal. This isn't a sickbay."
He glanced at his watch for the sixth time.
"What can we expect?" one of the soldiers asked. "Do you think they're armed?"
"Nobody said anything about them being armed," the major said. "But be on your guard. Stay focused. I'll go in first."
In the major's inside pocket was the paper with the suspects' names, with a stamp at the bottom, a signature. He pulled it out and looked at it, but it was too dark to read. Then he put it away carefully again. The rainy season always gave him a slight headache. The melody of a popular song came up in the major's mind, but he couldn't remember the lyrics. He tried to remember the words of the song but couldn't.
At precisely three o'clock in the morning they entered the house. The front door wasn't even locked, you saw that fairly often in neighborhoods like this one. Somewhere a dog began barking, but they were already inside. One of the soldiers pointed to a set of stairs which, it turned out, led to a bedroom. Major Anthony led the way, the way he'd said he would. He held his service revolver in his hand, even though he wasn't anticipating any trouble.
As expected, he found the suspect individuals in bed. The best moment to arrest a person is while he's sleeping or still half asleep, barely awake after hearing something somewhere in the house. That's why they always moved in at night, to make sure the operation went as smoothly as possible for all concerned. Discretion was important. You didn't need anyone looking over your shoulder.
A man and wife, that was his briefing. He lowered his weapon and shined his flashlight over the blankets. "Are you…?" he asked. But he got no further than that.
"Are you Mr. and Mrs. Siñani?" was what he'd wanted to ask. Those were the rules. Unnecessary formalities, according to some officers, but not according to him. An army existed by virtue of rules and formalities.
The question he had wanted to ask – no matter what answer had been given, the arrest would still have been made, but it was his duty to ask questions like that – he was unable to finish, seeing as how one of the suspects reached for something on the nightstand, presumably a weapon.
At that point, the corporal started shooting.
He fired as though it was the first time he'd ever touched a gun. He seemed unable to stop.
The major hadn't noticed that the corporal had his finger on the trigger. He always told his men: "Don't put your finger on the trigger till it's absolutely necessary. Not before."
Shooting too soon was just as dangerous as shooting too late.
"Stop!" the major shouted. "Stop! You idiot!"
At last the corporal took his finger off the trigger. He lowered his automatic weapon and looked at the major, his shoulders sagging. Major Anthony shone his flashlight in the corporal's face and was struck by how sad and tired he looked. Malnourished, that was the word for it. He only noticed it now. They had assigned him a malnourished corporal.
When he turned his flashlight on the bed all four of them saw that the suspect individual had not been reaching for a weapon, but for a pair of glasses. Why had he needed his glasses at this of all moments? Who reaches for his glasses when he's being arrested?
"What an asshole," the major mumbled, and he himself didn't know whether he was referring to the corporal or to the suspect individual.
"What an asshole," he said again, but more quietly, more hesitantly. He was less sure of himself now. Who, after all, was the asshole here?
He put his service revolver back in its holster, as though the operation were over and done with.
"Major," one of the soldiers said, pointing to the other suspect, the woman. She had been hit too, but she was still alive. She was bleeding and squirming like a snake. "This isn't good," the soldier said. "This isn't good, major. She's not going to make it."
The Nose, that's what they called the soldier, because he had a big black mole on his nose. Even the major, who had worked with him quite often, had no idea what his real name was. He'd have to look it up.
"Why did you have to go and do that?" the major asked. "Is that how they do things up in the mountains where you come from, corporal? What kind of training did they give you? Did they train you at all?"
The corporal coughed, and listening to him cough Major Anthony felt old and feeble. Hope went pouring right out of him, even though he didn't have the faintest idea what he could have been hoping for these last few years. The life was pouring out of him, his own life, but also that of the suspects he was supposed to arrest. It was as though the man on the bed had left this world by way of the major. The major was the final stop-over before the suspect individual's definitive departure for a newer, better world.
The wounded woman was lying beside her husband. They had both been suspect. The state took no unnecessary risks. Who you're married to is no accident. Love is often a pretext for subversive activities.
"I thought he had a gun, major," the young corporal whispered. "He had a gun, you saw it yourself, major. It looked like a gun."
When Major Anthony took a good look at the boy this time, it struck him again just how ill the corporal looked. "That was a pair of glasses. Is there something wrong with your eyes?" He stared at the bed, at the dead man, the glasses, the sheets, the blanket, the wounded woman, and he smelled the sickly smell of blood.
"I thought…" the corporal whispered.
"You thought!" the major shouted. "Nobody asked you to think. Don't go doing things you can't do. No one here should do things he can't do."
He muttered a few curses. This smell made him sick. The sweetness of it, stupefying. The Nose gnawed rhythmically on his chewing gum, the other soldier blew a bubble. The bubble-blower was nineteen, but couldn't really read or write. He could spell his own name, but that was it. What he had mostly done before joining the army was to sniff glue. Still, he was a good kid. A couple of weeks ago, during an operation, the major had talked to him a bit. The boy was honest, but he had no backbone. How could you, after living on the street for six years? As the army disintegrated, so disintegrated the country and so disintegrated this war - which wasn't even a war, which officially couldn't be called that - and so disintegrated the major himself. The only thing holding him together was his uniform.
"They're bastards, major!" the corporal shouted. "They're bastards, you know what they would have done to us? You know what they would have done to us." His voice cracked. And he kept shouting "They're bastards, major!" until the major said: "Now I'm ordering you to shut your mouth."
He had never moved away from the provincial town where he was born. Eight kilometers outside of town was the army base, which he drove to every morning, five days a week. And he usually drove back again in the evening, back to his wife, whom he had met during maneuvers in the mountains, in a café.
Other soldiers were noisy. Not Major Anthony, he was never noisy. That's why she had started talking to him. Paloma was her name. Her father owned a gas station, which he cherished like a jewel. They got married fairly quickly, it was better not to waste time with things like that, Paloma and her parents felt. And he had taken her from the mountains to his provincial town.
The major looked at the bed and thought about his house, about the swimming pool in the garden, a small swimming pool. He'd had it for only two years. When it turned out that they couldn't have children – they had tried everything, for years – he'd had a pool put in. But a pool wasn't enough for Paloma. "A swimming pool isn't a child," she'd said. The major hadn't tried to answer her, he just climbed into the little pool and lay there pontifically. He wanted to show her that a pool of your own was better than a child of your own.
"She's not going to make it," The Nose said, "she's not going to make it, major. What are we supposed to do with her?"
He sounded like a schoolboy trying to get out of a test he hadn't studied for. Soldiers were kids, that's all they were.
The major stepped forward, approached the bed. As far as he could tell the woman was going to make it. Not easily, but she'd make it. What difference did it make, though? Complications could arise nonetheless. He had no friends in high places. They wouldn't forgive him a thing. They wouldn't turn a blind eye to any of it. The situation was getting complicated, he would have a lot to explain. You didn't just go firing your gun. You didn't shoot a suspect individual just because he was reaching for his glasses.
The woman on the bed opened her mouth, it looked like she wanted to say something, but the only thing that came out was blood. A modest little ripple. She looked at the major. She had long brown hair.
This is what we've become, he thought, this is what I've become. And he heard The Nose saying: "This is really fucked."
Again he thought about the swimming pool he'd had put in. At first he'd planned on having a little fountain in the pool, in the shape of a mermaid, but that turned out to be a bit pricey. It had become a normal fountain, without the mermaid.
Now he knew what he'd been hoping for the last few years: for his mermaid.
"Finish her off," Major Anthony told the corporal.
The boy began laughing nervously. Then he started coughing again.
The major looked at the corporal, in order not to have to look at the woman, who he knew still had her eyes open. He could sense it. The scout in him was still there.
As soon as she closed her eyes he could look at her. And that's what he would do, a good, hard look. Not for very long, but long enough never to forget her again.
"What do you mean?" the corporal asked. "No, no, major. That's not… I can't do that… I can't…"
The major took two steps in the corporal's direction. With one hand he grabbed him by the throat, in the other he held the flashlight which he shone in the young man's unhealthy face. "What can't? What can't you do? It's because of you that we're in this shit. Haven't you figured that out yet? Have you ever figured anything out, corporal?"
With all his strength he squeezed the corporal's throat. He wasn't normally like this. He wasn't himself. This went against his principles. Against his ethics. But the more he went against his ethics, the harder he squeezed.
The corporal coughed, the corporal gagged.
Again Major Anthony saw his swimming pool, with the fountain without its mermaid.
Finally he let go.
The boy's face looked even worse than before. His forehead was shiny with sweat, there were black streaks on his cheeks, and for a moment Major Anthony wondered whether the corporal hadn't lost his marbles.
"Now!" he ordered.
The corporal looked the major straight in the eye, and the major saw the boy's hatred. He had no doubts about that hatred, he didn't doubt that the corporal, given the chance, would fire every last bullet in his clip into the major. But still, that hatred made no difference to him. What right did the corporal have to hate him? Was this situation his fault? Was he responsible for the upheaval, was he responsible for the way that upheaval had to be put down? Had he ordered this operation? Was it his idea to take along a green corporal from the mountains? The boy, his face the color of washed-out cardboard, pointed his gun and fired, just like the time before. It was clear that he was pretty inexperienced. He didn't shoot accurately at all, he didn't aim, he just sprayed. The way some people water the lawn, that's how he shot.
Then the corporal lowered his weapon. "Is that it, major?" he asked. "Are we finished now? Is that what you wanted?"
The corporal slid to the floor, his back against the wall. His coughing was terrible.
The major gulped. The sound of weapons, the all-penetrating sound of gunfire, strangely enough he had never grown used to it. Just like the shots, the blood samples you had to let them take every six months to makes sure you were still healthy. He had never grown used to that either.
The sick army wanted healthy men and women. But the temporary deafness that came after the shooting, a hissing feeling that sometimes lasted for minutes, interested no one. Only if you were afraid, deathly afraid, only if you were afraid you were going to die, then it didn't bother you.
The major was not afraid of dying, at least not here, not right now.
The corporal started coughing even harder.
Major Anthony didn't look at him, or at the bed. He stared the other way, at the bubble-blowing soldier. Quietly he said: "Mountain bastard."
Only then did he dare to take a look at the bed.
There they lay, the suspects. The blood and the bullet holes made them even more suspect than when they'd been lying there half-asleep. Their violent death was both verdict and confession. Anyone who died like this had to be guilty.
"They put up resistance," the major said quietly. "I'll put that in my report. The suspects resisted arrest."
He ran his hand over his face, they way he did after he shaved, the way his wife rubbed her legs after she'd shaved them. To feel whether any spots had been missed.
"What kind of resistance?" the bubble-blowing soldier asked. "What am I supposed to imagine?"
Major Anthony stepped over and stood right in front of the soldier. "Resistance is resistance. You don't have to imagine anything. You don't need to imagine anything at all, all you have to do is follow orders."
He had almost used the word "bastard" again, but he wasn't like that. He wasn't the kind of officer who swore just to create the illusion of authority. He had authority because he always treated his men well. Because he'd taught them that, in the army, it was all about honor. And honor was trust. Trust in each other, that above all. Blind trust. But also in him, in the major leading the operation. That's why he never swore as a matter of principle. An honorable major felt responsible for his men and made sure they came back to the base alive, and not in a body bag. Even when he wasn't on the job, even when lying in his bed, there was that responsibility that shaped his life and made him who he was. He never left anyone behind. And he never swore, as a matter of principle.
"Sorry, major," the soldier said quietly.
From down on the floor he could still hear the sound of the corporal's coughing. The cough changed to a rattle. The major looked at the boy, the way he was sitting there, his knees drawn up to his chest, his gun beside him, and he saw that tears were running down the corporal's cheeks. He realized that it wasn't a rattling cough. The corporal was weeping.
Major Anthony pulled out his notebook and jotted down the word "resistance". Slowly, a feeling of disgust for the corporal rose up inside him, a feeling bordering on nausea. He blamed himself for that feeling of disgust, but there was nothing he could do about it. He hated the corporal, the same way the corporal hated him.
Feelings were evidence of a lack of professionalism. A person bothered by feelings couldn't function properly. A person like that could only make mistakes.
This wasn't like him. He didn't recognize himself. This had to be somebody else. He had never put his country to shame, and his country in turn had never betrayed him.
The corporal kept on weeping. Major Anthony had no choice in the matter. He kicked him in the leg, not very hard, and said: "Pull yourself together, corporal. Pull yourself together, or do you want me to put this in my report as well?"
That was when they heard it. All of them heard it at the same time, he could tell by the looks on their faces, by the way the one soldier stopped chewing his gum for a second.
It was a sobbing, a terrible, loud sobbing, but it wasn't coming from the corporal. His sobbing sounded more like rattling.
In the house, somewhere, a child was crying.
"Goddamn it," said the soldier who'd been blowing bubbles the whole time.
All four of them fell silent, the corporal didn't make a sound either. They listened. Since the eight o'clock curfew had been imposed, the town at nighttime was so quiet that the child's sobbing cut the silence like a knife. It swelled gradually to a siren's wail.
"I'll go on reconnaissance," the major said at last. "Search all the rooms for anything that might be incriminating."
"What exactly is incriminating?" The Nose asked.
The major stepped up to face the soldier again, the way he had earlier. Normally, he never did that either. He had no need to intimidate. People listened to him because his orders were reasonable. "If you think it's incriminating," Major Anthony said, "then show it to me. I'll decide whether it's really incriminating or only seemingly incriminating. And behave yourselves. We're guests in this house, don't forget that. So let's behave accordingly."
He felt, if only for a moment, every bit as lost as the corporal. He rubbed his forearm across his face. His face felt wet.
At that moment, the sobbing stopped. Just like that.
The major and the corporal looked at each other: no hatred now, only fatigue. Then the major went into the living room. He slid his pistol out of the holster, but slid it back again in the same movement.
His flashlight would be his weapon.

When no reply came to his question, when the child showed no intention of answering his question, he said it again: "My name is Major Anthony. I'm leading this operation. What's your name?"
What were they supposed to do with her? Where was the child supposed to go? Jesus Christ, here they were now, stuck with a kid. He shined his flashlight around the room. Until the beam settled again on the child and her thick braids.
He was in a trance, he had forgotten everything they'd taught him at military academy. The major walked over to the table, where a box of matches lay beside one of the dirty plates. He lit the candles, as though he lived here. He had to put his flashlight on the table in order to do it.
He thought about his pool. And while he did, it suddenly occurred to him, like an old plan, an idea he'd had for years but for some strange reason had never carried out. I'll take her with me, he thought. I'll give her a home, I'll give her a mother. Paloma will be a good mother, Paloma will love her. I'll give her the pool.
He picked up his flashlight and put it in his pocket. He leaned his back against the wall. The major looked at the little girl, and she looked at him. The candles began flickering.
A minute passed like that. The major regained his calm. Once again he became who he'd been ever since he was eighteen; a soldier, someone who felt at home in the army despite all the obstacles, because it offered him what the rest of the world never had: direction, structure.
Then he pointed to himself again and, the candles flickering as though some romantic dinner party were drawing to a close, he said: "I'm Major Anthony. I'm in charge of this operation. You can call me Anthony."
That was how he introduced himself for the third time to the child he was going to take home to his wife. She had wanted a child more than anything else in the world, but it never came. Not that he couldn't get an erection, erections weren't the problem. There was sperm enough as well. But it was no good. Looking back, it didn't surprise him at all: rotten politics, a rotten army, rotten sperm. One thing led to another. But that had been no comfort to his dear wife. She was slowly wasting away.
The girl remained standing there like a statue.
From other rooms came the familiar sounds of a search. Furniture was being moved around carefully, a few pillows would be cut open, just to be sure, as would the mattress. He knew the rules. There was no getting around it.
A little more loudly now he said: "I'd really like to know your name. I'm Major Anthony."
No reaction.
She was defying him. The child was making a fool of him.
He took a few steps in her direction. He squatted down in front of her. He stayed there like that for a while, and it sounded almost imploring the next time he said: "I really would like to know your name."
The major reached out his hand to her, and now that he was at the same height as the child he could see how much she looked like her mother.
He looked at her braids, he saw how skillfully they'd been plaited, one morning in the courtyard, or in front of the house, in the cold air. Then he remembered the little wave of blood that had rolled out of the mother's mouth.
It was better this way. The suspect individuals would have only have ended up in one of his country's many prisons. Who ever came out of there alive? He had spared this child's parents a great deal of misery. And they hadn't had the time to think about it, to be sorrowful, to worry. They were lying in bed and then it was all over. If you thought about it a bit, he had actually performed a righteous act. A humanitarian intervention, under trying circumstances.
But there really was a child. No one had said anything about this. They hadn't put that in their report. He had to assume responsibility for this one, otherwise the state would have to take care of her.
The state was a good uncle, but not every uncle was good at raising children. Horrible rumors went around concerning the children of suspect individuals who had been nurtured by the state.
The arm of the state reached as far as possible and seemed to hold something in the hand it proffered, a piece of candy, a toy. But its hand was only an encouragement, its hand offered friendship more than salvation.
His fingers brushed against her left braid, and even more than before he realized that he was the one who would have to save her. It was up to him. And he would save not only this little girl, but his marriage as well.
Tonight he would save two, no, three people.
The girl had been dropped into his open arms. He couldn't just let her go. If he let her go now she would be lost for all time, just like his wife, just like him.
He knew about the methods the state used to nurture; he would apply other methods.
"Come on, tell me your name," he said. "Something kind of bad happened, but there's no reason why you should have to suffer for it. I'll take you along with me. You can't stay here. It's not safe here. You're going with me. That's why I have to know your name."
The longer he looked at the child the more he saw the woman who had been lying on the bed. He felt the moisture on his forehead and arms, he felt moisture running down his back. He squeezed his eyes shut and saw the corporal, how he had pointed his automatic weapon at the suspect individuals and how he had fired without being able to stop.
"I'm Lina," the little girl said. "My name is Lina Siñani Huanca."
The major opened his eyes. He felt relief, as though he had returned to base with all his men unharmed after a difficult operation. He tried to calm her with his eyes. He wanted his eyes to say: it's okay, I'm here, I've come to save you.
"Ah," he said. "Lina."
He put his left hand on the floor to keep his balance.
"From now on I'll call you Lina and you call me Anthony." He spoke as though telling her a secret no one else should know. "Not major, not Major Anthony, just plain Anthony."
The Nose came into the room. He had started talking already as he came down the stairs: "We didn't find anything, major. A couple of books. You want to see them?"
The major stood up. There was no reason to feel guilty, but he did. He stood up so quickly, it made him dizzy. He shook his head slowly and said: "No, I don't need to see anything."
The soldier caught sight of the child and swore. Then he coughed, seemingly shocked by his own curses, and asked: "What are we supposed to do with her?"
"We're not going to do anything with her."
The major glanced at the candles he had lit in an unguarded moment, an unsound moment.
"What do you mean we're not going to do anything with her?"
The Nose's skin was tanned but still pimply. Bad nutrition, bad skin.
"Exactly what I said," the major said. "We're not going to do anything with her."
"Are we just going to leave her here?"
The soldier had his rifle slung across his back. He wasn't very tall. The rifle didn't really fit his back, his back was too short.
"I'm taking her along," the major said. What he had really wanted to say was: I'm taking Lina along. She had a name, there was no going back. This was his operation and he would bring it to an end as he saw fit.
"We could pretend we didn't see her," the soldier said. "We just leave. We didn't see anything, we didn't hear anything."
"I'm taking her along," the major said. He saw panic in The Nose's eyes. "From now on she's my responsibility."
The soldier wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "Isn't that against regulations?" he asked. "I mean…"
The soldier was only halfway through his question when the major realized that his own authority was showing signs of strain. Under normal circumstances a soldier would never dare to ask a question like that. The mere suggestion of an irregularity was enough to undermine the present balance of power.
"This is my operation," the major said. "The regulations here are my regulations."
The soldier shrugged. He looked around, at the table, at the girl, at his major. "We're finished upstairs," he said. "Anything else you want us to do?"
He pointed to the bedroom where, only minutes ago, the major had felt so old and weak. The bedroom where he had unintentionally saved a couple from a terrible fate.
In times like these you needed control over life and death, to avoid worse. The gods had had their chance. They had botched it.
"Get a gun from the jeep," the major said in the quiet, amiable tone he always used when giving orders.
The army didn't liquidate people on its own initiative, but self-defense was another matter. No one was going to take fingerprints in here. This was a state of emergency. He would draft a report that showed that the child had put up resistance as well. That was nothing unusual. Children often put up futile resistance. Children don't know what they're doing.
The Nose walked out the door. Major Anthony took another good look around the room to be sure he hadn't forgotten anything.
The child turned and headed towards her parents' bedroom. She was faster than you'd expect, for such a little girl.
The major jumped into action like a tiger. He ran after her and grabbed her from behind. Taking Lina by the arm, he pulled her back, back to the table.
"Don't go upstairs now," he said. "You can't go up there right now."
"Mama?" the child asked. "Is my mama asleep?"
The major's mouth was dry. "Mama is sick," he said, and held her arm tight.
He said it as though he believed it himself.
The Nose came back with a gun, he didn't bother looking at the major or the child. He walked up the stairs, his rifle slung over his shoulder. He would toss the gun onto the bed the way you toss an orange to a friend. They had done this before.
"Mama is very sick, Lina," the major said without loosening his grasp, and he thought: this is my operation, this is what my life is about. This is what I was made for.
Then his men came into the living room. The corporal held a pile of books under one arm.
"They're rebels, major," he said. "Take a look at these books. Terrorists. Do you want us to take them in with us?"
"Who?" Major Anthony asked absentmindedly.
"The books."
"Leave them here."
He stood up straight. He still had hold of Lina. He took her hand. A dry little hand. Compared to her hand, his was all wet and sticky.
"Listen," he said, looking at his men who were barely men. Children. Invalids. Patients. Not men.
"Listen," he said again, "what happened here was, was…"
He couldn't arrange his thoughts.
The corporal coughed. This time the major didn't say anything about it.
"Unfortunate," Major Anthony said at last. It was the best word he could come up with, there was no better word for it. "What happened was unfortunate. Things like this happen. We're all feeling a little down in the dumps. But I'm in charge of this operation, you men don't have to worry about a thing. I'll write up the report, first thing tomorrow morning. It is my responsibility…"
He felt himself growing sentimental. Even as a child he'd found it hard to watch things suffer. A dying butterfly gave him nightmares. But a person who couldn't stand suffering could make killing his profession. The army is there to prevent needless suffering.
"It is my responsibility," he said, "to get you all back alive. That's my primary responsibility. The rest is just details. And I will live up to that responsibility. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Cautious nods were the reply.
"And the kid?" the corporal asked.
"I'm going to bring her home alive, too." The major's voice sounded different this time. Harsher. A routine job like dozens of others, like hundreds he'd carried out, had become something personal. How many suspect individuals had he arrested? Hundreds, maybe even thousands. He was good at it. Better than the rest. Professional. Courteous. Every suspect individual had a right to respect. Tonight as well, despite everything, he had been courteous. Yet this operation hadn't been like the other ones. Tonight he had not only taken responsibility for his men, but also for the child and, with that, for his marriage.
"There are rules about that, major," the corporal said. "Children without parents are supposed to be…"
His voice irritated the major. Not so much what he was saying, he barely heard that, but the sound of the corporal's voice, that nasal sound.
"I don't know where you're from," the major said, "and I don't know where you've been the last two years, but right now you're here. And where you are now, we make the rules. We are the rules. That's what a state of emergency is all about. The rules are adapted to fit the situation, okay? And as long as I'm the one leading this operation, I'm also the one who adapts the rules. Right now those rules say this child isn't going anywhere where I can't protect her. Is that clear, corporal?"
There was no reply. For thirty seconds or so, not a word.
They stood there like that, in the living room that wasn't theirs and to which they would probably never return. The candles were still burning, and the major no longer had any idea what he was waiting for. All he knew was that he was going to take Lina with him now, that he was going to leave this house with her. With her, or not at all.
"A friend of mine," the corporal said, "got hit by a Molotov cocktail. Half his face got burned off. If only he had pulled the trigger a little sooner, major."
Holding the girl's hand, Major Anthony walked outside. He was almost dragging her along behind. It was more like running than walking.
The men followed behind. Helicopter gunships were flying in the distance.
"If only he had pulled the trigger sooner, major," the corporal said again, whining like a child who wants to get in the last word.
"Look at that," The Nose said. He pointed at the helicopters. No one reacted.
They arrived at the jeep. The corporal opened the door and climbed in behind the wheel. The major slid in beside him, the child on his lap.
"Is my mama still asleep?" the child asked.
"Mama's sleeping," the major said. "She's kind of sick."
"My papa's sleeping too?" the child asked.
"Papa's sleeping too," the major said.
The corporal pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped his hands. "It was at a checkpoint," he said. "The car slowed down and they threw a Molotov cocktail at him. Have you ever stood at a checkpoint, major?"
The major said nothing. He didn't like the word "checkpoint", he preferred to speak of "control points".
"Could we get moving?" he snarled.
The jeep started. Major Anthony held onto Lina's arms. He thought about his wife. What he had on his lap right now was the most wonderful thing he could give her.
She could never get this from anyone else, only from him.
From the backseat, The Nose said: "I only need another four months' pay."
"For what?" the other soldier asked.
"To get my mole removed. I've been to the doctor already. Another four months and I'll have the money. Then the mole goes. They won't even recognize me."