It's a beautiful day. The temperature's in the upper sixties, the sun's dipping in and out of cottony clouds, the sky's an iridescent blue. I'm canoeing down the Hudson, following the river's slow, wide course as it navigates between gentle slopes. Occasionally, a wooded copse spills right down to the waterline: green, brown, yellow, clad in camouflage colors. I can't see a single house, but a freight train runs parallel to the river, its metallic clangor stopping only when it slips into a tunnel at the neck of a bend. The silence that follows seems even more pronounced - and the great white-headed eagle that wheels over my head, riding thermals, suddenly plunges down to the water and flaps away, dangling the silver ribbon of a fish from its talons.
I'm smoking a cigarette, which surprises me, because I'm not a smoker, but I don't question it. Instead, I glance over my shoulder to where Espinosa is in a bright yellow canoe just like mine, water streaming from his paddle. He's smoking too, and I wonder if it's to overcome the pungent smell of the decaying apples bobbing up and down on the water. There are hundreds of apples, and as many birds - ducks, cormorants, geese - feasting on them, seemingly oblivious to the eagle in the air. Espinosa holds his paddle above the water and waggles it at me. He tucks his cigarette behind his ear and scoops up an apple from the water, throwing it to a duck. I laugh and lean back and let my gaze travel across the crest of a high cliff crowned with pines. I feel grateful at having been able to get away from the ugliness of war. I remind myself to write a letter to thank whoever arranged this day-long excursion.
A thickly wooded island looms ahead, and a black horse with a white star on its forehead lopes down to the river and plants itself knee-deep in the water, nuzzling the apples. I glide my canoe gently past it, water droplets sprinkling my face as I breathe in the smells of the river, the lazy summer day, the strangely silent birds, the floating apples. Someone behind me starts singing Country Joe and the Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," which I find a little inappropriate, given the circumstances. Then Folsom slips past me with a beatific look on his face. He's grown his mustache back, I notice. He says: Man, this is fucking awesome!
The play of light and shade on the water reminds me of a mosaic pattern I once saw in a mosque in a village near Kandahar. I'm surprised I remember it - and so clearly. The mud-daubed domes of the houses in the village were like egg cartons, and the splendor of the mosque stood in jarring contrast to the poverty surrounding it. But that world is somewhere else now. I look around and reckon we must be somewhere between Cold Spring and Garrison, and although I've canoed this stretch more times than I can remember, I don't recognize a thing. But I'm not worried. Just before the river narrows into a shadowy corridor, I turn the canoe around momentarily to watch Alpha Company form into a compact group behind me, the knot of yellow, red, and green canoes like a flock of brightly colored birds on the water.
Ahead of me, Folsom slows down and I pull up alongside him. He's sweating profusely and spits a spent wad of chew into the water.
Where are we, Lieutenant? Bear Mountain?
No... No, that's farther south.
Then where? I don't remember this part.
It's all right, I tell him. You're not from around here. That's true. We should've gone to Wisconsin, where I'm from. The White Lakes.
Good fishing, I expect.
The best. He falls behind and lets me take the lead.
The river contracts into a stream, steep gorges rearing up on either side. I can hardly see the sky overhead but I still feel strangely unconcerned. Then the sides of the canoe begin to scrape against the rocks and I smell the first whiff of scorched earth. The roll of rusting concertina wire that stops me dead in the water is buried just beneath the surface, a litter of rotting weeds concealing it. It's almost dark as the men cluster behind me with no room to turn around.
Excerpted from The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Copyright © 2012 by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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