Caddie glances behind them and her chest finally loosens: the roadblock is out of sight; surely the worst of the day is history. They pass a couple buildings still showing the kiss of battlesgapes and scars where walls should be. Then a patch of trees with leaves implausibly green against the fresh sky. Mt. Hermon rises in the distance, a landmark she knows, and the region becomes rocky again.
Their driver slows as they pass a woman in a long, loose dress and a headscarf who totes a toddler straddled on one shoulder, a basket on her head. She looks middle-aged, though shes probably in her twenties, eroded by having borne a child each year since age sixteen. Caddie has interviewed women like her. She lives in a one-room hut with a husband who shows more fondness for his gun than his family. Every day she scorches her fingertips making pita, and every night she rubs sore calves with callused hands. When she speaks, the wind carries away her words. When she needs help, she leans against a tree. She rarely knows surprise.
Their driver has courtesy enough, at least, to spare the woman the discomfort of being covered in dust. As they crawl past, she acknowledges them with the smallest of nods. Her toddler, frightened by the noisy vehicle and its load of strangers, lunges forward, blocking his mothers sight. She wipes his fingers from her eyes with her free hand in a gesture that seems to rebuke and soothe at once, and the intimacy of that movement sets off a longing within Caddie, irritating but not unfamiliar.
"Stop," Caddie calls out in Arabic. "Back up. Please."
The driver slows, shifting his face toward Sven for direction. Hes been paid to cart them where they want to go and, inshallah, hell do it. But Caddie knows what hes thinking: taking orders from a woman, no one told him about that. It appeals as much as walking barefoot on glass shards.
Caddie stares hard and Sven remains silent. The driver blows frustration out his mouth, then brakes and shifts to reverse, halting his vehicle alongside the mother.
"Caddie," Rob says. "What the?"
Caddie turns her head away; she knows what hes going to say and doesnt want to hear it: that the criminal they will interview is as mercurial as he is dangerous and makes enemies with the ease that most people drink water. That there are warrants on his head in Syria, Israel and the United States and hes always on the move to avoid detection. That if they are late, even a little, he will not wait.
This wont cost them but a minute. Sven could move to the back and squeeze in next to them, leaving the front seat for the woman. Caddie herself will hold the child on her lap. A lift of a few miles might save this woman hours of walking.
She rises to make the offer.
But the mothers chin is raised in sharp rebuff, and Caddie recognizesa moment too latewhat she already knew. The woman would never climb into this car. She would be called a whore, and possibly beaten, if a brother or husband or even a neighbor saw her in a car loaded with foreign men, and with Caddie, who is not an ally, who is only an outsider, a stranger and transient. Who has no place pretending otherwise.
Even worse, shes just shed her journalistic detachment. The moment reeks of sentimentality, no greater sin among reporters.
With the Land Rover out of gear, the driver revs the engine. She feels Robs stare.
The mother moves past, eyes averted. The toddler stares over his mothers shoulder, then ducks to hide himself. No one in the vehicle moves. No one speaks. Finally their driver turns to Caddie, his expression empty, his contempt strong enough to emit a sour scent.
She tightens her left hand into a fist, searching for a question she might ask this driver, one that could allow her to smirk. What would you put on a vanity plate for this bullet-dodger? 2-TUF-2-SPIT, she imagines him answering. That brings a smile that she hopes looks mysteriously smug to the driver, and to Rob.
From The Distance Between Us by Masha Hamilton. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Unbridled Books.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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