Edge opened his eyes. The light coming in through the window hurt them, and they were heavily bloodshot. He realised he was in a bed and a young Colombian woman was bustling about, carrying a bowl outside.
“Hello,” Edge said in English, “Where am I?”
She just giggled and went out with the bowl. He dimly recollected that she had been cleaning him with a flannel. His body ached, but the fire of the stings had gone when she smeared some oily compound on him. In the bowl were four leeches they had removed from his body, gorged and distended with his blood. He realised he was totally naked under a sheet, stained with his plasma and pus from the open sores on his legs. His combat clothes and socks had been cleaned and were hanging up to dry. His rifle, daysack and Glock were in a neat pile at the other side of the room.
He heard a man’s voice and a young man came into the room, wearing a long cassock. He sat on the chair next to the bed.
“I’m afraid I can’t speak English,” he said to Edge in Spanish.
“That’s all right, Father. I can speak Spanish.”
“That’s good,” said the priest smiling at him.
“How do you know I’m English?”
“Because you told the children who found you by the river and you were talking in your sleep. You talked a great deal. You sounded troubled.”
“Where am I?”
“This village is called Nasaya. Why are you, an Englishman, in the jungle?”
“I have been fighting FARC and the drug cartels with the Americans. Please don’t be alarmed by my weapons. I mean no harm to anyone. Well apart from FARC and the narcos, obviously.”
“And how did you end up in the river?”
“Our helicopter crashed, out to the north-west.”
“Are you the only survivor?”
“No. There are six others who survived the crash. I need to help them.”
The priest looked troubled, “There are no telephones in the village at the moment, a landslide carried the lines away and we don’t have satellite connection and there is only one bus to Villagarzon every week. It left yesterday.
“Do you have cell phone connectivity, Father?”
“I have no idea.”
“Could you pass me that daysack please?”
The priest moved the rifle and automatic distastefully and put the kitbag next to Edge, “I don’t like guns. They cause sadness and misery.”
“They are tools, Father. Nothing more. It’s not guns that harm others, it’s the people operating them.”
“Quite. What do you intend to do, English soldier?”
“My name is Mark Edge and I intend to get help for my comrades. As I am the only one who knows where they are, so they will have to come and get me first.”
The priest nodded then asked: “How do you intend to contact your rescuers, Mark Edge?”
“Do you have electricity?”
“We have generators for some of the buildings, like the school and the clinic. We were going to take you there, but you woke up.”
“I’m hoping that my cell phone still has charge, otherwise I’ll need to use a solar charger and that will take for ever.”
Edge took the phone out of his day sack, wrapped in a sealable plastic bag. He switched it on and looked at the charge bars. There was little charge left and the signal was intermittent. He found a single number in the log that he was interested in, the only one he knew and pressed it. The phone he was calling, rang for quite a long time before she picked it up.
“Clarita, it’s Edge.”
“Edge? Edge, oh, Mark. Everybody thought you were dead, missing in the helicopter.”
“Be quiet and listen carefully. I don’t have much time before this phone gives up. I am at a place called Nasaya on the Rio Caqueta. East of the mountains and close to the border. Have you written it down?”
“Is there somewhere two helicopters can land, Father?”
“The playing fields behind the school.”
“Tell Martinez to send two choppers to pick me up. I’m the only one who knows where the survivors are. There are six survivors, or there was. The helicopters will need to refuel twice, once each way. The Doc will have to come because there are serious casualties.
“The choppers can land on playing fields, I will mark the spot with smoke. They can make a start tonight, but may have to stay overnight where they have refuelled. Hopefully I will see them in the morning. Did you get all of that?”
“Yes. Are you all right, Edge?”
“I’m still aliv…” And then the phone died.
Rivera bit her lip and got on the sat phone to the Green Berets’ forward operating base. She relayed everything Edge had told her to Martinez.
“OK Clarita, I’ll get the ball rolling. We should hopefully be off this afternoon.”
“I’ll come down but I can’t get on an aircraft until tomorrow morning.”
“As and when. And thanks Clarita, that is wonderful news.”
Edge asked the priest to hand him his clothes and he put them on. They were still damp, but now at least they were clean and not soiled. The priest held up a tatty little toy koala bear.
“Mr Skippy, my good luck charm. I’m glad you found him.” He tucked the toy in his inside, smock pocket.
“What now?” the priest asked him.
“We wait until tomorrow and the Colombians come and get me, God willing.”
“Do you believe in God, Mark Edge?”
He looked down and said quietly: “There are no atheists in a firefight, Father.”
“Are you ashamed to say that God defines your life? That he gives you strength and fortitude, the will to carry on?”
“Father it’s difficult for me to explain. In my country you can be a Sikh, a Buddhist a Hindu or a Muslim, particularly a Muslim, but you can’t admit to being a Christian. Christians are strange, they are slightly mad, they are not to be trusted. And God help you if you’re a Jew.”
The priest looked at him with shock, “Why is that, Mark Edge?”
“Because my country has lost its moral compass and that is the will of degenerate politicians.”
“Do you wish to make your confession?”
“What, here, now?” said Edge, suddenly surprised.
“Why not? You could thank the Lord for your deliverance.”
“It’s just that I… That it’s been so long.”
The priest smiled enigmatically.
“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been nineteen years since my last confession.”
And he had to grapple with a lifetime of killing and violence, “Father I have killed many people. I suffer from anger and sometimes I feel like it’s consuming me. I drink too much and smoke when I am stressed. I love my wife and children deeply and have never really been into the lust thing, perhaps when I was a young man. I believe that despite my failings, I can show moral and physical courage as well as fortitude. I do not kill for satisfaction, in the main, but in self-defence. It is difficult to square the circle when you are a soldier. I wish that I didn’t feel anger so easily. Anger and fear are intertwined in me. I’m a pretty flawed and screwed-up character.”
“And yet you came out of the jungle to save your comrades. A sense of duty?”
“I was saving myself really.”
“Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
There was a very long pause.
“Father, I’ve had enough. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“You have the humanity to be aware of what you do and your future is between you and God. Try to receive the sacraments more often and let God into your heart. Turning the other cheek is not an option for you, but use your power and abilities wisely. There is no penance I can give that matches the penance you have endured, getting out of the jungle.
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
It was the pressing weight of his responsibility of getting out of the jungle and making his first confession since he was a teenager. But most of all he felt as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He knew he would transgress and his anger would bury him in the future, but for now he was at peace with himself.
“Thank you, Father for listening to me.”
“Would you like a meal?” the priest asked.
“I should eat something, but I poisoned myself in the jungle. I think I ate a bad fish. Something very light please.
The priest called to his housekeeper and she came into the room. She had the rather flat features of the Amazonian Indians, but she was nevertheless, a good-looking young woman.
“Can you prepare some soup and bread for our guest please, Faidra. Not fish.”
She nodded, smiled at Edge and went out into the kitchen.
“She doesn’t say very much, Father.”
“Alas, she is mute and has been since her family were killed by… Who knows? But she is kind and looks after me, an excellent housekeeper.”
“Whose bed was I sleeping on?”
“I can’t have that, Father. I’m not going to turf your housekeeper out of bed.”
“It is only for one, well two nights.”
“Where will she sleep?”
“With me,” the priest said simply.
Edge stared at him in shock. The handsome priest smiled sadly, “Alas like you, Mark Edge, I also am a flawed character. But we are a long way from the Vatican here and the jungle tricks the mind. It can be a very lonely place.”
“I am in no position to judge you, Father. I wouldn’t begin to put myself in your position and as you say, the jungle is a lonely place. It you make each other happy, then good luck to you both.”
They spent the time chatting, the priest asking him where he had served. He seemed surprised that the British were in Afghanistan and looked shocked when Edge told him what the country and its people were like and their casual attitude to death and killing.
“I never knew there was such wickedness in the world.”
Edge sighed, “And the problem is, you could argue that I and others like me are just as culpable.”
The housekeeper beckoned Edge and the priest through to the kitchen. The table was laid and small loaves of bread were in the middle with a jug of wine. They sat down and the priest said grace and. She gave them a bowl of some kind of stew with lentils and small pieces of chicken. Edge ate it slowly, but still felt his stomach cramping, protesting at the sudden influx warm food in it. He realised his ribs hurt from when he’d been retching, and for the first time he comprehended just how sick and close to death he had been. The priest blessed it broke the bread and gave Edge a piece.
“The body of Christ.”
Edge was transported back to a time when he was still effectively a child. He remembered the smells of the incense in that church in Nuneaton. Emotionally drained, he began to weep. Finally, he pulled himself together.
“I’m so sorry, Father. It has been such a long time and it reminds me of my mother. She has gone and I felt like there was nothing for me. The Regiment became my family, my home and a way of life. I owe it and my comrades a great deal.”
“Please thank your housekeeper for her kindness, and you of course.”
“Thank her yourself,” the priest said, “She can understand you perfectly well, even though she can’t speak.”
So, he did and she smiled. Edge and the priest stayed up into the dark night, the only illumination a single oil lamp. The housekeeper disappeared later and Edge smiled to himself, thinking that she was probably warming their bed. They talked of many things and the priest seemed hungry for knowledge. He asked Edge about the world he knew nothing about and wanted to hear about Britain. He told Edge that he had been born in a Bogotá poor district and went into the priesthood at an early age. He had been on an aircraft once, to fly to the States, but America held no attraction for him. He was intelligent and well-read and obviously popular with his parishioners. Much later he shared his brandy with Edge, who could feel it burning as it went down. They said their goodnights and the priest went to his warm bed and Edge got into the housekeepers. He gave thanks for his deliverance and for meeting such a kind man. He extinguished the oil lamp and fell into a feverish sleep.
The housekeeper woke him, even though she had attempted to be as quiet as possible. The priest prepared for the late morning mass and the woman made him breakfast of coffee with evaporated milk and pan con qeiso, which was literally a roll of fresh locally baked bread and a thick slice of fresh cheese. Edge ate it, but could feel his stomach protesting, however, the sweet coffee was a real treat. After breakfast, Edge sought out the priest in the small church.
“Father, I have to go and check the landing site on the playing fields, for loose debris that could damage the helicopters.”
The priest told him where they were, “I’ll join you later, Mark Edge.”
He put the Glock in his thigh holster, slung his daysack and the rifle. The housekeeper looked at him with a worried frown but he smiled at her disarmingly.
“Thank you for breakfast, Ma’am.”
He had no trouble in finding the sports fields, with a posse of children following him. Firstly, he checked there were no wires on the way in and the climb out. The surface was compacted earth and scrubby grass and the only loose debris was divots and dry grass. Next, he ascertained wind direction and asked the children to get him some oily rags and dried grass. He made a little pyre downwind of the landing point of rags and bundles of grass.
Now it was a waiting game and as well as children, half the village seemed to have pitched up to watch the show. The priest came later and was amazed at the difference in Edge. He still looked ill, but he seemed to move differently, with purpose. He was back to being a soldier. Edge came over to speak with the priest.
“They should be here fairly soon, Father.”
“And you will be gone. The river deposited you here and you will be plucked into the air to return to your own.”
“Father, I am very grateful to you and thank you for your kindness.”
“I am glad that you still find in your soul a place for humanity and God. I would say go in peace, but it doesn’t seem very appropriate in your case.”
Edge smiled ruefully, “Please thank Faidra for me. I wish both of you every happiness.”
Edge cocked his head on one side, “They’re coming, Father. I need to get these children off the landing point and light the fire.”
The flames took the rags, but the damp grass smouldered, sending a cloud of smoke downwind. Like two sheepdogs they shepherded the children off the sports field and had cleared it as a Huey helicopter went over the village and turned into wind. Edge was frowning.
“I told them two choppers.”
He ran back to the upwind position and raised both arms upright to denote: “This Way. The Huey flared and put down. Edge recognised the Doc as he jumped down out of the port door. He ran towards the helicopter and the Doc grabbed his arm.
“Are you OK Edge? You look terrible.”
“I feel terrible, Doc. Where’s the second chopper? I asked for two.”
“It’s back at Caucayá Airport, although “Airport” is a generous description. There didn’t seem much point in sending both to pick you up.”
“OK, Doc. The crash site is under the jungle canopy. You can get the choppers in one at a time, force protection first. The site is about 500 metres downriver of the landing point. Two casualties are serious, a Colombian Delta and Morris who has a compound fracture of his lower leg.”
“We will have to refuel at Caucayá, just a top-up.”
The helicopter reared up and pitched nose down and the blades bit into the air. Edge stared out of the door at the priest who waved. Edge raised his arm, but the dust obscured the people on the ground and then they were over the jungle, heading for the small, provincial airport.
“I will need to have a good look at you. I think you should be admitted to the hospital in Pasto. You have lost a lot of weight and you look sallow,” the Doc shouted.
“At the base yes. Hospital no.”
It was about a thirty-minute flight to the airport and the second Huey and the eight Alpha commandos were wating for them. They got off while the helicopter was refuelled and they had a coffee.
“What the hell happened to you, Edge?” asked the Doc.
“I poisoned myself with a bad fish, although it smelled OK and didn’t cause any reaction until I ate it, I’ve been stung to buggery by some very large, black ants, I’ve been a mobile cafeteria for leeches and I was so sick, a fully-grown jaguar wouldn’t touch me. Either that, or it really liked me. And I had to blow away a crocodile that took an unhealthy interest and he didn’t like me.”
“Oh. What’s the best way to find the others?”
“We need to fly along the river to retrace my steps. It’s the only way because I didn’t have GPS.”
Edge went and spoke to the pilots, “Can you go down to the river again, to where a bridge is being constructed, then head northwest to follow the river upstream?”
“Ahh yes, the new crossing at Solano. We can go there and follow the river.
“That’s the idea.”
Caucayá was a very small aerodrome, but there were two Jet Ranger helicopters based there as well as a few twin-engine aircraft. Edge watched them refuelling the Huey and was champing at the bit, because he kept worrying about those he had left behind. Finally, the Doc, Nguyen and Edge got on the helicopter and they were heading back to the river to pick up the bridge under construction.
At the bridge, the workmen stopped to look up at the two helicopters as they turned to follow the river. Edge was craned between the two pilots, desperately trying to find landmarks he could recognise.
“Take the tributary on the right, there, up ahead.”
“Yep, in a few clicks you should come up to a series of waterfalls.”
Edge forgot his pain and concentrated hard on the river. Behind the second helicopter was tucked in behind with the Colombian troops.
“There! There they are. Above the falls the river becomes quite narrow, with the jungle almost covering it.”
“How far along from the falls?” the pilot asked.
“About four kilometres.”
They flew slowly up the river until up ahead, they saw a bright light under the jungle canopy.
“Somebody just fired a flare, but it didn’t get above the canopy.”
“Keep going,” Edge told him. “Until you come to a clearing.”
“I have it.” The pilot said. “Let the troops land first.”
The second helicopter hovered just above the clearing and the Colombian troops disembarked and spread out as a defensive screen. The Huey backed off and Edge’s helicopter went in. Edge was off, despite his weak, shaking legs and he headed down the river. The Doc was carrying a medical bergen and Nguyen two folding stretchers. He saw the troops up ahead and broke into a trot. The Colombian officer embraced him.
“Thank you, Edge, thank you so much. We never gave up hope.”
“When they lost hope, I threatened to shoot them,” The Colombian said with a smile.
“Where is your wounded man?”
“Alas he died. He never regained consciousness. We buried him on the other side of the river, with the others.”
Edge looked around and saw the Doc treating Morris and Nguyen dealing with the minor casualties.
“Where’s Edge?” Morris asked.
“I’m here.” Edge knelt down next to him while the Doc inspected the compound fracture.
“I knew you’d come back, you Limey asshole.” He grasped Edge’s hand, “You look terrible.”
“I think we can save the leg, Morris, but we need to get you straight to hospital. There are some maggots in the wounds…”
“And they did you a favour, getting rid of the dead tissue. It prevented gangrene.”
They gently put Morris on a stretcher and started to walk out. The helicopter came in and they loaded the casualties first, including Edge and headed to the west and the mountains. The door gunner closed the doors to keep the icy blast off the injured. Edge stared upwards at the grey insulation on the roof of the passenger compartment and he felt his peripheral vision going. He fought to stay conscious, but slumped down next to Morris. He had no more to give. Morris shook him gently but there was no result. He partially covered Edge with his blanket and he too closed his eyes.
The Huey headed for Central Pasto and the San Rafael Hospital. It landed in the hospital grounds and the injured were admitted. Morris would need a series of operations to save his leg and as soon as he was stabilised, he would be on an aeromed flight back to the States. The Doc was of the opinion that Edge should go with them, but he regained consciousness and dug his heels in.
“No, Doc! I’ll go to the sick bay, but not to the hospital.”
Edge looked evasive.
“Because hospitals remind me of getting shot and my mother dying in one. Happy now?”
“Edge, you are a strange one. But as you wish.”
© Blown Periphery 2022