“You know what my father used to tell me,” Gaines replies, “people are born crying.”
You’re fucked if you do, Gaines sings to himself. There is no light in the desert. I breathe the flat Iraqi air cleanly and listen for the footfalls of yellow dune geckos. The desert sands are obsidian, clean, simple, so I try not to think about the snakes, the desert vipers, the clicking of the scorpions as they scurry, their tails poised and erect, and the camel spiders whose bite could pierce through a cheek effortlessly. You’re fucked if you don’t. Even the flies that swarm through the desert like static on an old TV are a threat. When the desert winds swirl, villagers pile inside and shut their windows and doors. Some nail them shut, some have dug holes that serve as makeshift basements that they cover with sheepskins and squeeze inside. The disease of the desert flies, the plague, is basically leprosy. During my first tour, in a small village in Al Muthanna we encountered a woman who we treated for a bite on her thigh. It’s rare to encounter any women at all, let alone one willing to let us treat her, to see what only her husband had ever laid eyes on. The flesh was parted, green and white around the edges, and I could see straight to her femur. But you’re double fucked if you did.
I sweep forward, my face parallel to the twinkling lights, and squeeze them out between thumb and forefinger. “It’s my birthday,” I tell my sergeant, “nineteen.” I had been here before, maybe this exact spot, months earlier, and what I remembered most was the desert nights; how the oppressive heat pressed on suddenly, and the setting sun welcomed the black, the black sky of my childhood nighttime drawings; the stick figure family, the green blades of grass as tall as the log cabin, and the big yellow wiry stars snaking between the overlapping black crayon. After the first step out into the gloaming the light graces my back, and when I raise my arm I can see the sharp outline running up my forearm. A few more steps and there is nothing but the stars. I look back at the town, radiant and peaceful in a contained translucent glow. I always pray for the night.
“Old enough to kill, old enough to fuck,” he says with a half-laugh-half-growl, “but not old enough to drink,” and we trek forward until we can only see our silhouettes against the stars, “You’re probably starting to wish for the good old days when you were young and nothing you did had no consequences, that right?” I pinch another star. “Hell, I fucking never wanted to be no kid even when I was a one.” Once we are about two miles east of camp we throw our blankets down and lie on our backs. Stones poke my traps and I shake the sand from my jacket. I try to outline the constellations best as I can remember them. The Big and Little Dipper are always easiest to find, and in between is the dragon Draco. I take out my lighter and try to use the tip of the flame to connect Draco’s arching back, but I keep reusing stars and soon give up. I never understood the importance of constellations, why something as significant as a star needed to be attached with others into a shape that looked little to nothing like what it is intended to resemble, but I never stopped trying to find them either. Gaines stares at the spotted night sky, and he sucks on the teak pipe he bought in the Arab Shuk. The burning hash illuminates the dense tufts of smoke that twist around the glossy rims of his nostrils. The pipe crackles. “This is the good shit,” he says.
“Shit is shit,” I say.
“Well look at you,” he says and takes another puff. I get a glance of his scraggly beard, a collection of black hairs that curls inward off of his face like growing ivy. I love the way hash burns. The flame slowly sifting across the brown tar in incandescent lines searing away inner layers until it glows leaving the hash whole, as a thin trail of dense grey coils in intertwined concert until it is lost. At first I came here to explore, despite the lingering threat of a stray landmine or half-buried barbed wire. All that is offset by the sand dunes and natural limestone cliffs completely untouched and unpolluted in the empty world we now inhabit.
Our platoon is stationed a few miles east from us in an area known as Al Muthanna, near the Kuwait border, and now I come out here for the hash. It’s never good hash neither, it’s always the same low-grade that they scrape off the bottom of their shoe and sell to Americans like Gaines. The high always ends the same too. Deep dreams that are quickly broken up by Gaines shaking me and saying that next time he should just leave me out here to burn. “Listen boy,” he stays quiet for a moment, I feel a gecko dart across the sand near my toes, “My wife can’t have a baby – we tried once,” he begins to tell me, “there’s too many kids in this fucking world anyway, and no one to take care of them,” and has told me in the past, “last thing the world needs is another one of me.” He twirls the wooden pipe between the gaps in his fingers, the stem scraping against his calloused hands, and it twirls and twirls suspended in the darkness for no one. – – –
Little girls dance and laugh and twirl in long bright pink dresses; they giggle, and whisper, but there are no women. This is the real Army experience, I think. It’s my first tour and I’m serving as an M-1114 turret gunner. We drive down the streets of Baghdad and I fumble with my helmet strap against the sudden jolts. We are pulling security during a presence patrol on a public affairs mission to ‘understand the civilian perspective.’ In droves they stop and stare lining the streets, and little children point and laugh, while fathers grab their arms as the girls weave between them giggling and whispering.
We turn off the main road and enter the shuk. Surrounded by gray bins of dates, cashews, pecans, bowls of bananas, green and yellow zucchini and men leaning forward in their chairs cigarettes in hand, the smoke being blown away by oscillating fans, yellow stucco walls with smattering of white residue of sand and crumbling edges, bright red purses hanging from high hooks dormant with diamond designed oriental rugs and cross designed blue and yellow cloths, tables with wooden chess boards and wooden trinkets, and mahogany pipes composed of interchangeable parts with serrated edges. As we pass, Gaines slips a pale wood pipe into his pocket. The road begins to narrow, the raised pale stone brick road out-jutting, and no one clearing a path. A man in a sepia shirt that says “Believe” in English runs up to Gaines holding an artichoke in either hand. We can’t speak over the noise, and the crowds shield us from signaling to one another, but we press through.
A boy scampers up to the side, holding a steel red Tonka truck in hand. He begins shouting things in Arabic or Syrian; none of us except for Gaines really know the difference. We were only taught the important terms in basic training such as ‘soldier,’ ‘stop or I’ll shoot,’ and ‘get on the ground.’ The boy’s voice is meek and squeaky with the timbre of a choir-boy.
James kneels down. His blonde eyebrows arch up well into his forehead and before his head was shaven his blonde mane made him look like a rock star and he most likely was one. “Jundi’s,” he says and hits his chest, then he points him palm out, fingers together directed at the boy’s chest, “ogoff.” The boy grins, and holds his truck tight in his arms. James turns to me, “throw him a Pop-Tart, or something,” he yells in his surfer snarl. I start rummaging through my knapsack.
“In World War II German boys would ask American soldiers for chocolate bars, and when the soldiers reached into their pockets, the boys would reach into theirs, and pull out a gun,” I say. “What makes you think this is any different?” When James first got here he was the conspiracy theorist in the squad; that was his sense of humor. I remember him telling us how the government probably gave the flies those diseases. It just made their job a whole lot easier. Then what about the soldiers they send out here I asked.
“Shut your trap, Kemp,” he yelled, “and get me the damn Pop-Tart.”
I doubt he even heard what I said. I look over to Gaines for some sort of a reaction and I see that he is standing stiff, his face clean and drowning with sweat. I decide not to say another word, and as soon as I find the shimmering foil of a Strawberry Pop-Tart, I toss it toward James.
It lands on the ground near his right boot. Murmurs pulsate through the moving crowd. James begins to reach over, and hesitates.
“Here,” is all he says and he waits for the boy to take it. The crowd is shifting restlessly, faces turning toward us, and the boy looks from soldier to soldier, his cheeks high and his bright white teeth glowing. He snatches the Pop-Tart and holds it up. The crowd is condensing. The boy drops the Tonka and fumbles with the foil. James falls back into formation, “ready to move out.”
The boy casts the Pop-Tart on the ground, drops his pants, and squeezes his body together. I turn away as he defecates laughing and smiling the whole time. The crowd is in an uproar, men are laughing and cheering.
James turns beat red and raises his gun, and an older boy in purple runs out and shields the boy. The crowd grows silent. He spanks him with one hand and smacks him in the face while dragging him away. “Keep it cool, James,” Sgt. Gaines yells back, and I’m startled to hear his voice. For the first time it hits me that Sgt. Gaines is as new at this type of thing as we are. He nods and smiles at the crowd of men and boys. There is an old man whose jaw is drooping and whose eyes are wide and confused. The boys’ faces move uniformly as Gaines struts back and forth. He walks next to the gun-truck. We continue patrol with James and Gaines marching on each end, and myself sweating, half asleep inside.
“This goddamn place. We should wipe everything out. That’s why this goddamn place is so crazy,” James says, “it’s the bugs we don’t squash,” and he murmurs under his breath, “this goddamn place,” like a child growing tired at the end of a temper tantrum.
As we march further the crowd starts yelling. Now more men line the streets. They wave their fists. My sergeant says nothing. We are pelted with small stones from all directions. My heart’s pounding and I’m in the gun-truck with my fingers wrapped around the handles of the gun like ivy, my fists facing each other, thumbs ready to pound the butterfly triggers of the M2-50. I wait for a reprimand or a guerrilla attack and an order, any order, but we keep moving. The crowd is growing, but the faces stay unified angry. Some yell, while some just glare, children glaring from their fathers’ shoulders, men yelling and shaking their fists, little boys dancing in the streets, twirling and laughing and I am gripping the gun with both hands, ready to aim, to fire, and we keep marching. The stones grow larger, more jagged. I duck and they clang off my helmet. “Gaines, Sgt. Gaines?” I say.
He doesn’t respond. We are in formation, the crowds rejecting us, wishing us dead, yelling words in pitched tones. Screaming, shrieking.
We don’t stop.
“Fuck me sideways, private,” I open my eyes. My face is swollen. I reach and rub my cheek and it cracks. The top of Sgt. Gaines’s cheeks are bright pink and white and the bridge of his nose is bubbling, “eight years of service and I never did nothing this fucking stupid. Maybe I am slipping.”
I throw water on my face, and it stings horribly, “You slipped a long time ago,” I say, only my tongue is swollen and the words come out muffled as if I am yelling underwater. I drink from the camelback. We fell asleep. Fell asleep and overslept until at least late morning.
“Happy fucking birthday soldier, you’re lucky to be alive. Did I ever tell you about Private Shiavino?” I shake my head and rub my eyes with the sand-less islands of skin on my hands, the pain radiates to my ears, “Private Maurice Shiavino spends a week tossing and turning in his bunk while his platoon is stationed in an outpost in some abandoned mansion on the outskirts of Al Hadr. He can’t sleep, it’s just not happening,” I begin gathering my things together. Jacket, check, “Now Schiavino has an idea, a horrible idea, but a man deprived of sleep makes bad decisions,” Sgt. Gaines takes his pipe back out, reaches into his pocket, and stuffs a glob of black hash inside. Dog tag, check, “he grabs, or he sits, fuck, what was I saying?”
“Private Shiavino,” camelback, check.
“Oh yea, that guy was a real fuck up, we found him in a bathtub with a death stalker scorpion nestled in his throat,” he chuckles, “those are the deadliest ones.”
“You sort of ruined the story there, Sarge,” I said with a yawn. I reach down for my boots. Gaines reaches for his. M-4 Carbine, check, never leave home without it.
“Hey let me ask you something, you’re nineteen now, that right?” he shoves his left foot in his boot with the pipe clenched between his teeth. Lighter, check.
“I bet you’ve never been fucked.” He reaches for his right boot.
I pause and reflect; a haze transcends the plain of the flat desert terrain like gasoline fumes ready to ignite. Instead, I think about the stone fireplace in my rancher back in Mount Washington. The wall of the fireplace and a piece of white chalk marked how tall I was growing. In the end it turned out to be somewhere between ‘not very’ and ‘shrinking,’ which was hard with my dad being a towering figure. We’d sit, him and I, on a rug by the fireplace with an old mahogany checkerboard resting on a plush ottoman. He’d always tell me to pick my color first, and I always chose black, just how I like it, he’d say, fire before ash.
“No,” I lie.
“I knew it,” he says triumphantly, and he slips his right foot in his boot. His body convulses and he pulls back swiftly screaming, the sand shooting up behind him, and he tugs at his boot kicking it with his left foot; the base of his heel catching the lip of the boot and forcing it off. A mass of golden hair flits out across the sand zigzagging and eventually stopping some hundred feet away as he grimaces.
Gaines’s sock is spreading maroon, ripped at baby toe and exposing a split through the flesh like a wrench. The camel spider remains defiantly paused. Gaines squeezes his foot cursing, and pants, “You a fucking statue? Help me wrap this.”
By now the sun is perched directly above us. I help Gaines rip apart his tank-top and we tie his foot best we can, but that’s about all the medical equipment we have handy, and it won’t stop bleeding.
“I don’t know what your fascination is with all this nature shit, animals and stars and whatever” he says, “fuck it.”
“We’ve got to start moving Sarge,” I say, “they’ve got to be looking for us, we are in trouble already . . .”
“Trouble?” He half laughs, “With who? The army? They fucking need us, if they didn’t I wouldn’t be here, you think fifty years ago we’d be here? Look at us!”
“Forget that then, if we don’t get back you’ll bleed out.”
“I said us kid. You shouldn’t be here either.”
I look at my compass. “I’ll support you, we head west and should hit camp in ten, fifteen minutes tops.”
“I ain’t letting you touch me,” he takes the rest of his shirt and wraps it around his head, “you think I’m crazy. I ain’t stupid, but if I’m the crazy one what the fuck are you doing out here with me?”
I start walking. My vision blurs and my memories start to flicker in front of my eyes like a lighter trying to catch.
“What is it? Am I fascinating to you? Or will nobody else come out here with you?” I’m far ahead now, drifting away from his voice. “Well, what is it?” He yells.
We stop. It’s at least ninety degrees outside and we are at an impasse. There is a boy in the road. He is wearing a puffy black coat. Gaines is silent, always silent. James speaks up, Jandi, Ogoff terra amie. He yells and raises his gun. The boy doesn’t react. Jandi, impuita, impuita! I’m sweating through the armpits of my uniform. Hotter than ninety, easily, and still there’s the boy, eyes dead set, barely sweating. We are stopped. None of us move.
Gaines slides toward the boy lifting his rifle awkwardly, unsure where to aim. Sergeant Gaines, Sergeant by default, the ‘experienced’ soldier. He points at the little boy’s chest. “Move” he says in plain English, with a deep bellowed command that had been lacking since our platoon was formed, “move, or I’ll shoot.”
The boy doesn’t respond. “Damnit,” Gaines says and wipes the sweat off of his creamy cheeks, impuita, his voice pleads, impuita. The boy’s lips are parted and emotionless, pale and apathetic. He is as tall as Gaines’s navel and his eyes are two sloped balls of amber. Gaines stands his ground catching quick glances at the boy’s fingers, which jut slightly out of the sleeves of the coat and are delicate like the first branches of a freshly planted sycamore. From a distance, a quiet crowd forms around us. Everyone is quiet, and neither Gaines nor the boy move. He sneezes once, his head bouncing forward gingerly and then jerking back into proper location.
“Shoot him,” James says, “Just get it over with already.”
Gaines drops his M-4 to the ground and raises his hands in the air, Jandi he says one last time, Jandi, and he inches forward. The boy twitches and his right hand closes. His little chest heaves and he sneezes again. Gaines grabs his 9 mm Barretta from his side pocket and aims it at the boy’s head. The boy’s sickly legs shake from his shorts and he releases his bowels.
The firewood cracks like a whip, and I think of how I hate the way firewood burns; how it needs to be fed and even then it resists. The dryer it is the better is burns; the deader the better, and while sometimes it burns all the way through, sometimes it only goes halfway leaving a charred shell. I’m sitting Indian style on the big warm stone by the fireplace, with a mahogany checkerboard on the plush ottoman and my father looming on the other side. He towers over the ottoman, and still has perfect posture from his army days although he walks with a limp so the less walking he does the better. “I want red this time,” I tell him, “fire before ash.”
“Maybe,” he says, “but once you kill the fire, who will stop the smoke?”
The little boy slumps to the ground slowly, a million moveable parts all relaxing at once against the ground where he was once standing as tall as Gaines’s navel. Gaines is shaking now, like the legs of the boy moments earlier. He reaches toward the zipper of the boy’s jacket and tugs at the plastic grip in spurts. The boy’s brains paint the street. I look away and can’t think of anything else at all.
“We should be back by now.” We have been walking for quite some time, although the sun is still planted high above us. There is no way we trekked out this far. We were maybe a mile or two outside of camp at most. Gaines is far ahead; he has been using his Carbine as a crutch. He drops his bag and pulls out his camelback
“I can’t carry any more of this shit. You look through, and take whatever you want,” he says and throws his jacket down. His wipes the sweat away from his nose and take a long swig of water. “Go through, take all the food, or whatever else. There’s some good stuff in there, beef jerky.”
“Gaines, did you hear what I said?”
He reaches down and grabs the beef jerky. Then he limps over and shoves it in my pocket, “you’ll need this.”
A shudder like a wave travels down the base of my spine. Did I know we headed east from camp, “You son of a bitch,” I say, or did I just take Gaines word for it? “what did you do?”
“Keep moving,” he says and limps ahead, camelback in hand, “I’m getting you out of here.”
“Getting me out? Gaines, we’re going back.”
“We’re not going back.”
Not going back? I frantically search for words. “You son of a bitch.”
“This is no place for a boy like you. You belong in glee club or something like that, not in a fucking war-zone.”
“You son of a –“
“I tell you a lot about myself, more than a kid like you should know. My problems are my problems. You have no role here. You ain’t never killed no one, I don’t think you’ve ever fired your gun.”
“Where are we, Gaines?”
“You think you can just daydream your way through a goddamn war, but you’ll get it eventually,” he says, “this isn’t your story,” lost in each sputtered syllable, “you’ll thank me.”
“Gaines . . . “
“It’s all because of that that boy in Baghdad,” and he strides faster, choking up on the last syllable. I run to catch up and lose focus, the ground ceases to exist, and I wait for the fall, but then my boot hits sand again, step by step. I drop my bag and keep moving with Gaines, pleading with myself for him to regain composure and lead me out of here. He turns around and says, “Lord help us.”
I hear it in the distance, a cycled hum growing louder. I’m barely walking; my momentum is carrying my body. Water isn’t helping. I cup my hands and yell, “Gaines, chopper,” my lips cracking apart with each sputtered syllable. He is moving ahead faster, barely limping now. I stop and consider my options. Either I follow Gaines to wherever his deluded mind believes I should be going or I wait for the helicopter, which is unlikely to be friendly. I am on my knees, having no immediate memory of how I got there. I grab two handfuls of sand as a gust blows sharp grains against the side of my face.
The helicopter comes into sight, but it’s too high to distinguish, and sweat and sand sting my eyes every time I strain to see. The chopper veers around and drifts further and further away, throwing a thin wall of sand toward us. I tell my arms to wave frantically and my mouth to scream, and I reach for my camelback and bring it to my mouth. The water is warm and tastes sour, and I find the strength to rise to my feet, certain that I can still hear the hum of the helicopter.
“Gaines!” I cry. He is a half a mile ahead and he stops at the sound of my voice but doesn’t turn around. That’s when I see it. Swelling from the horizon, a cloud of black, contrasted against the clear blue sky, thousands of flies and more coming either blown by the wind or attracted by the death in the air.
Ogoff terra amie! Gaines yells and he lifts his carbine toward the pestilence. Jandi, Ogoff terra amie mother fucker, and fires wildly while the swarm bears down. I’m running, but I’m not. The skin on my knees grates off against the sand, my legs shuffling as quick as they can go until I collapse fully. I lie on my back, a thin trail of claret on the ground beside me, and I gaze up at the sky. Black specks circle against the blue, a blue more blue than any sky I have ever seen or imagined, a glowing cerulean like a magnificent waterfall streaking above me shadowed by constellations ever and never imagined. I sift through my pocket and find the lighter. The sand around me is blown into crescent ridge and when I flick the wheel it sparks to life immediately. I hold the flame up in front of my eyes and it dances lost in its own rhythmic pulses, waltzing with the wind, motioning for me to join as my arm begins to tire.