When he opened his eyes, the first thing he noticed was the smell. He smelled clean grass, and the pungent bark of trees, and he smelled the river. Yes, the scent of smooth rocks bathed by flowing water, the wet soil and sand of the river bank, and the roots of trees and the floating leaves and fish and frogs.
He coughed, and wiped something black from his lips, and remembered what he now did not smell: smoke, ash, gunpowder, blood, shit, fear, and decay.
Across from him, Sam sat awkwardly leaning up against a tree trunk, staring at his hands. Turning his hands over and examining the palms, and then the backs again, his fingernails lined in black like kohl on a whore. He was filthy, bloody, and thin.
“What happened, Sam?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “Where are we?”
Sam looked up. “I don’t know, Peter,” he said.
Wherever they were, Peter suspected Sam had got him there. He had a good idea of where they might be. Where they came from was hell. What could this be, but heaven?
“Can you hear the birds?” asked Sam.
Peter shook his head. The last thing he remembered was the thudding sound of artillery as he crested the ridge, bayonet in hand. Perhaps a shell had hit its mark. Perhaps he was blown to bits.
“Are there birds?”
“Yes, finches, meadowlarks,” said Sam. “There was a fat robin.”
“I can’t hear them.”
“Can you hear the river?”
“No, is it nearby? I can smell it.”
They were in a small copse of birch and poplar and pine, in a wide meadow of tall grass flanked by a forest, beyond which were hills, then mountains, then mountains dusted with snow.
His left calf was wrapped in strips of bloodied cotton sheeting. He wondered why he felt no pain. He did, suddenly, feel hungry.
Sam said, “I’ll get some water, and find something to eat, in a moment.” Then his head slowly nodded and his chin fell to his chest, his mouth partly open, snoring quietly. Both of them were intimate with exhaustion, and falling asleep instantly the minute it was quiet and safe was a survival strategy.
Peter was exhausted, but he wasn’t sleepy. He turned his head and felt the rough bark against his cheek. He pulled a handful of grass and weeds and brought it to his nose, inhaling deeply. He coughed again. He stared at Sam. He looked up at a cloudless sky.
Sam had brought him to this place, this heaven. Sam was a good man. The gates of heaven would be open to Sam.
Peter was a murderer, a thief, and a liar. How is it he was allowed to sit in the cool shade, breathing, alive?
He tried to get up, but collapsed against the tree again. He watched Sam, for an hour, or maybe two, until his own eyelids fluttered shut, and he was in another kind of heaven, the heaven of dreamless sleep.