The Tracer Bullets

The battle between the Sandinista and Contra soldiers broke out in a valley just below us. Michelle and I were walking to a village in the northern mountains of Nicaragua. It was dusk.

The road was more a ledge on the side of the mountain. Just over the lip, in a small dip in the woods, was a mud house. The father came out, with two  little kids. He smiled, we talked a few minutes. His wife followed, shy and curious at the same time–What the hell were two gringos doing way out here, in the middle of nowhere? 

The shots exploded down below, from both sides of the valley. The tracer bullets: I see them now, so clearly. Every fifth round in the machine gun belt has a small pyrotechnic charge in its base. When the gunpowder ignites it, the bullet burns red. The gunners use them to target their enemy without having to release the trigger: just follow the red lines.

Thousands of tracers burned the very air, cutting red lines across the valley, taut, glowing threads flung from one side to the other, as though to form a web of fire over it.

It was too fascinating to be scared of. At least, that’s how I felt.

Michelle stood beside me, speaking common sense Let’s get the hell out of here. The family was studying the battle, and muttering to themselves about whether or not they should run, or maybe they could stay home this time, that the battle would move the opposite way.

I wanted to get a closer look. Michelle got all bent out of shape. I feel it again (why do these moments seep into my Now so quickly? Moments that, all my life, have meant to save me from what’s inside). Michelle’s standing next to me, gesticulating, talking reason through a panicking voice. And all I want to do is meet the soldiers.

I looked down at a path that led away from the family’s home. I was sure it would get me to the edge of the battle.

Michelle was pissed. But, she wasn’t surprised. We wouldn’t have me diagnosed until years later, regarding the root of putting myself in risky situations. But, we both knew I had that tendency.

The battle shifted. It was moving up the hill. The family left.

We left too. Michelle berated me all the way to the village. But all I felt–and I feel it again, right now–was regret. Oh, I know better, of course. But at the time, for some reason, the battle in the valley pulled me out of all the war in my skull.

I wanted to get close. I wanted to stand alongside a Nicaraguan soldier, hold the machine gun belt for him as he shot away–no, that’s not right. I wanted to take his place and burn a hole through the woods. I wanted to feel the rattle of the machine gun as I tore the enemy to shreds. An enemy that I couldn’t see.

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