Lenora missed the days when she could fly on her own. The solitude, the silence. Just feathers and air. A time long ago.
A hand signaled: entering combat air space. Lenora reached above to brace herself as she stood. The pack strapped to her back had already been checked several times. She preened the release rings with her fingers and ignored the women lined up ahead of her, just kept her eyes locked on the open sky now visible through the open door of the plane.
“What better way to ruin their days- beautiful fighters to destroy extremists?”- Amazons, Furies, Sirens. Nightmares of old. The Babe Squad, military brass had joked, pulling at their crotches, like little boys who needed to pee, unsure if the equipment was still there while Lenora stood before them. She had thought them nervous and unaware with those words, not serious that maybe there was more than one of her in the crowd of female soldiers, some newly welcomed, some reassigned. But no one else quite like her. She kept to herself. She found creating fear in others satisfying but not exciting. The father of her child said they shouldn’t want to know the sex, a surprise, an open invitation, a remembrance of things old. Lenora didn’t understand ignoring the creature growing within her. It was like raw food enthusiasts ignoring the sacrifice of Sisyphus. Not everything was good in the old days. “What does it matter?” he asked, and she didn’t respond, “What will I do with a son?”
Her man was a fire man. He and his station was a neighborhood fixture for kindness. They were the calm of nightmares acknowledged, trained solutions to fear. The sight and sounds of the huge fire engines signify panic and disaster and yet the children’s eyes and mouths circled in adoration as they screamed past. The desperate of the city abandoned their babies at his door. He and his brothers sought out gas leaks before they could steal air or explode, lifted the elderly off the floor, taught children not to hide from fire because it was the smoke that truly wanted to kill them. They were meant to be strong and bold men, but unlike so many others, they were also meant to be gentle. There was a garden around the firehouse, and the smells from the kitchen that wafted out into the neighborhood testified of the men’s culinary accomplishments. When other women looked at her man, it was once at the uniform, twice at his strong and kind face, and then took a step back when they met her observant stare. She knew what they saw when they looked at him. Broad shoulders to a narrow waist, despite comradery with his beer-loving bachelor and divorced brothers in the station, the ax-wielding arms that only worked for rescue, for resolution. When the women looked at Lenora, she wasn’t quite as sure what they saw. Other women were tall and lean. Maybe they could smell the fire beneath her long fingers. She didn’t care. It was his choice, and if one day he chose differently, most likely she would have been gone first anyway.
They jumped from plane, dropped through the night sky, black shadows into the forests of northwestern Nigeria, sliced cords and discarded the parachutes. She wondered who would find them later, what use they would find for the fabric. The evolution of a thing. Maybe something only has one use. Maybe children would slice them into individual tiny chutes and coast away from trees. Maybe this was her only use, swift justice. Her former comrade, Meg, said that was so, but Meg didn’t believe in change.
Lenora hated the standard military uniform on women. Even with the big black boots, they never seemed to look tough. They were just out of place. The traditional female soldiers braided and coifed their hair tightly to the back of their heads, like little girls in recitals draped in puzzle piece camouflage. Their gait was as tightly wound as their hair. Like a bad performance piece or dolls in the wrong costumes. The stern faces and stiff movements were like school marms imitating stern fathers, eager for acceptance. She was amused at her relief when the black clothes appeared for the elite new squad. For once, murmurs and rumors was useful. Command wanted to continue the Babe Squad of Fear mentality. Their PR campaign had a funny effect. She could move freely. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. She enjoyed snaking through the camp in sleek black, which is when she saw her old friend for the first time in these new lives of theirs, now just known as Meg, and could almost see the smoking feathers, smell the sulfur, but the effect was from the cigarettes. And because of that smell, she remembered that she had sent out the call, smoke signals out her window.
When the American military changed the rules for women to compete to be rangers, Lenora had considered joining the way she considered responding to the mumbling man on the train or the good of giving a dollar to the beggars. She had explained herself to her man as having been an athlete in her former life. Not hiding, not explaining. He enjoyed training with her. “You understand,” he said, “to train for life, for usefulness, not vanity only, but,” always putting his hands on her as he said, “it’s still hard to resist.” Then the news became wearying. The violence was everywhere, never any reports of it checked or punished. Only endless streams of images of men shouting and firing guns, no matter the flags in the background, the skin color, the landscape, men with not enough to do and the women, huddled and bruised, and then stolen. The stealing was what finished it for her. She felt the rage circle and snare in her belly, the heat rising up and extending out. She had lit a cigarette and opened a window. Resting her arms against the sill, her backside arched out behind her, she had pretended to drag deep and slowly exhale, her mouth pursing and slacking, sending out white shapes before the smoke evaporated. She stubbed the cigarette out, smashing the filter into the window frame, a burnt spot in need of paint, and let the butt fall as she slammed the window shut. Their windows looked at other windows, the city skyline too tight for much musing, but there was a little sky. Just enough sky.
Then she had been lulled by his low voice, the rumble of laughter in his chest with her ear pressed to it, the sounds of sirens made from emergency vehicles, the electricity of the city. She had forgotten the call, hadn’t really believed there was anyone left to hear it. The old response was gone, and something new took its place.
She had said, “I wonder if I could do something.”
And he had responded, “I understand completely.”
She passed the test, no concern for the results of other applicants and entered training with the girls in their uniforms and their serious faces, still fierce but softer. Practical and task oriented, senses of humor, these women with lives beyond the job. She had forgotten the old feeling and started to believe in an evolution.
And then here was Meg, charcoaled and delirious for blood and vengeance, her old comrade.
“You seem different.”
“You are the same.”
Neither a compliment.
“They just want to belong to something, some of them at least,” her man had said. “Not all of them, I know. Some just want to hurt. But my point is, they would all find some other way. Some group to join, some way to cause pain. No different than the gang violence here, the poor and angry young men. People want to belong and people want power. We just give it different names.” And then she stopped the sound of his calm voice in her mind because she needed to work.
The others had spread out unseen. Lenora knew her own duty and had the vaguest notion of the overall official plan. The majority of the team was to secure the women for retrieval. Lenora and Meg were to allow this to happen, no further explanation given. Separate the innocent from the guilty. Just like old times.
“I can smell the pregnancy.”
Lenora kept her eyes forward and breathed evenly. “What?”
Meg sighed. “You know what happens with women of war.”
“They were kidnapped.”
“You sound like those modern warriors hiding in the bushes behind us. Call them a team. Us a team. I want to hear you say it.” Meg moved out from behind Lenora, shadows within shadows. “Let’s get this done. I need a different smell.”
Soon enough the air was charred. Lenora supposed Meg was correct to mock her, even for the wrong reasons. Meg’s lack of evolution was useful for its swiftness and unexplainable nature. Once the men were dealt with, there was a surprising lack of hysteria. Or maybe the shock of horror just has no words. The women came more willingly with the female soldiers, just as expected. Lenora sensed little relief. But they were conditioned for captivity by now. The camp was near a road and the trucks arrived with the sun. There was no more enemy to stop them. More soldiers waited on the trucks: medics and translators, gunners. Women who had toiled in the military for years, all ready for this rescue mission. A chopper came down for Meg and Lenora who would get the bird’s eye view and no more cover of darkness. Lenora realized she wasn’t ready to be seen now that it was over.
“Look away.” Meg’s voice seemed low to Lenora, but somehow the pilots appeared to hear her or maybe just remembered orders, for their heads snapped forward with the words. Lenora heard them begin to breathe again, even with the sound of the engine, under the chopper’s deafening spin and the wind whipping through the cabin as they lifted off. The two women strapped in, ignored the headsets available and scanned the ground. Briefly, Lenora found herself turning to Meg, who was waiting with her gaze, and this time Meg didn’t need to speak. Lenora thought it too: what home did the rescued women have to go back to? Then she realized Meg was still staring. A gloved finger, talon like, pointed at Lenora’s waist. “So, what’ll it be?” and showed her blood stained teeth as she laughed.