In the dry tent the clothes hung mouldering on their lines. There was so much dampness those first few days that even the smoke from the fire seemed wet. Clothes were layered upon clothes. Achieving a degree of dryness was an accomplishment because it meant the clothes of the body could be traded for something warmer or that there was something to wear the next morning. We met the others through the maze of clothes as if we were hunting for the wounded in the dusk following a hail of gunfire.
She: “Someone moved my sweater.”
I stood behind her feeling oddly guilty and we hunted through the garments until the item was found (if it was ever found), joined with half-hearted concern by waves of our colleagues, brows rutted with wet.
Later in the heat of a fire and beer someone handed me a guitar and I strummed with indecision. I would have liked to have given it to her beside me as a mark of her competence but neither could she play. Eventually the guitar was taken by someone else.
We were possibly closest but as if it was a symbol I never went into her tent. I had a real love for her. But it was doomed I guess: I was making no progress in the field and every day in fact I regressed further and further. This was the general complaint & in some sense I beat it into a narrative for the others. So when the call came that there was work to be had elsewhere it only made sense that she should leave. On her last day something finally clicked for her and she planted 1700. This was a number I could not even comprehend and my last day (some time later) I went into the field preaching some kind of reform and came out a whimpering loser.
At breakfast after she had left her friend who had taken up with one of the other men (the two would go on long walks together into the forest or along the river, as if that was something any of us wanted to do in that country; he always acceded to the suggestion of these walks with a puppyish excitement which I thought revealed their true purpose) asked me in the morning if I was “in love with her.” When it came out that I was there was a general astonishment, false I think. Then came the true question asked for the satisfaction of her personal anthropology: why hadn’t I—?
Hadn’t what? It was obvious. I just shrugged. I think I expected more talk. I think I thought something would be clarified by my expression of feeling, even though it had come so quietly. I felt as if I had disturbed the first pebble that would call down an avalanche of consequence. But nothing happened. We finished breakfast. We washed our dishes and took the bus out of camp, to the worksite, where we planted trees, or tried to. Probably I thought of her, thought of her and thought of the reaction at breakfast. Maybe, I thought, word would get back to her in K——. Maybe it did. It doesn’t matter, because I never saw her again. My love didn’t matter. I learned that, that morning.
That night I dreamed about finding her in the dry tent, amidst the haze and smoke and clothes. But even in my dream I couldn’t embrace her. And in the morning she was gone.