Mejra, a big, shaggy, and affable Tornjak herding dog, waited outside near a long wall of firewood. Inside, her boy stuffed bare feet into rubber boots and dragged a coat from the rack. “Mama, I’m going out!” the boy shouted behind him as he pulled open and slipped through the back door in one easy, familiar motion.
Outside, he whistled one long and one short and Mejra burst up from her patient seat and bounded alongside, nearly bowling the boy over in her exuberance. “Hey girl, today we go to the forest and find some more helmets and maybe a knife. You mustn’t tell Mama, she is afraid of the forest, but we cannot blame her, she’s only a girl.” He paused. “Well, you’re a girl too, but that’s different.” Mejra woofed low in approval and leapt over the split rail fence along the road as the boy stopped, straddled, and lifted his leg over. An older boy in a pickup sped by, shouting a greeting and throwing up a tri prsta, the ubiquitous thumb, index, and middle finger salute of Serbian solidarity. The boy grinned, shouted, and saluted back.
Further on, after slipping unnoticed past his aunt’s house, the boy and his dog entered the edge of the forest. “We have to go deeper, remember? The good stuff is going to be back past the stream where the big kids go and drink and mess around.” Mejra bounded ahead along a track beaten in the low brush and between the trees. Soon they passed a clearing with the cold remnants of a makeshift campfire surrounded by sawn logs, broken bottles, crushed cans, and food wrappers. A little deeper in they darted by and left unnoticed crumpled bits of toilet paper and a forgotten pair of underwear hung jauntily on the outstretched arm of a small bush. A little deeper still they came to the stream. The boy tried to step across on the rocks; his rubber boots slipped on the mossy surface but saved his feet from cold immersion while Mejra took the stream in one casual leap.
“Stay Mejra, wait for me. We must look first before we go.”
She held and sat, her shaggy coat brushing against the tangle of rusted barbed wire that laced the low undergrowth on the far side of the stream.
“Do you remember where we found the helmet last time?” the boy asked.
“Right” he replied, it was just over there. Today we will go further. Uncle Djoka says there was a fight here but most people don’t know about it. We know about it though, and we have proof.” The big dog looked up at the boy. “Come on girl, you know what I’m talking about, the helmet. I just told you. You’re so stupid sometimes.”
She gave her tail a short wag and shifted impatiently.
The boy stopped and listened. He thought of his mother at home, and how she was afraid and would be angry if she found out he was here. He thought of his father, lost in the west near Bihac while fighting the Catholics. He thought of how he should be a man and take care of his mother and the house and maybe, just maybe, he should go home and not cross over into the forest. But the last thought was brief, and the lure of war trophies was too strong. The boy peeled apart a few strands of wire, let the dog squirm through, and then limboed after.
For awhile, the way became a more difficult; this part of the forest was never traveled. Then Mejra stopped on a wide path, devoid of significant vegetation. “Wow! This will help us get further in. I’ll bet the soldiers used this road. There should be great stuff somewhere along here.” The dog moved up the path with her boy close behind. She took point and sniffed ahead: first one side, then the other, her tail like a signalman’s flag snapping in a sharp breeze. There were so many smells here and she was keen to pluck one from the other.
Suddenly, Mejra stopped her zig-zig sniffing pattern and stood still, her tail dropped and the fur along her spine began to tremble and rise up. A low, rumbling growl rose in her chest.
The boy was in a hurry. “Found a rabbit, girl? Forget it, you can chase it later, we’re looking for better stuff.” He pushed past his friend to make faster progress down the path.
Mejra barked, full, loud and strong, and pushed her powerful body forward, passing the boy on his left side; her bulk and speed made him stumble and drop to his knees.
It takes a few seconds for a soldier’s hands to brush concealing debris over a landmine.
There were many who ran to find him when they heard the pop. There were many mothers whose hands tensed on broom handles, and soapy plates, and the shirts of their sons. There were many fathers, and uncles, and brothers whose hands lifted up the boy and carried him out of the forest. They brought him to a hospital in the center of Brcko, a city along the Sava that ties a narrow knot in the center of the bow-tie halves of the half-born Republika Srpska.
Mejra had triggered the mine and was killed instantly. The boy was only maimed. His left arm had to be amputated and doctors spent hours pulling shrapnel, rock, dirt, and dog bone from his side, face, and head. The boy would live, but how would he use his last hand?
Born in Redondo Beach California in 1961, Kurt Rice grew up in Southern California and served in the United States Air Force until he retired in 2006. He now lives in Henderson, Nevada with his wife and two teenage daughters.