“we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars,
as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion”
Behind them lay the terror of besieged cities, and ahead? They did not know. Only that it was a better choice, the only choice they had.
The whole country was a no-man’s land. Their road cut across the middle of it, a rusty knife sawing through a rotten fig. All the while, the sand and wind wanted to claim back their thin passage of hope.
Time was of the essence but the desert cares not for time or borders or wars, nor for the men who make them. To know the mind of the desert would be to know the mind of God, something a truly pious man such as Qasim would never presume to know. So, when his saviours, who doubled as bandits and mercenaries depending on circumstance, told him and his children to get out and clear the road or dig out the truck, that is what they did. The border drew slowly nearer and if digging was what God wanted them to do, then they would do it with joy in their hearts. “Allahu Akbar,” Qasim would remind his remaining children, embracing them and kissing the tops of their heads before they hopped off the back of the flatbed. He’d wipe away their tears and together they would work. They would dig in the heat of the day, and the cool of dawn and under the shivering desert moon, when roused from a fitful sleep. They would dig for their safety, or at least for the border and another journey and for the hope of safety.
“Aistamiar blhafr,” Keep digging, Hassan, the foul mouthed one, told them.
Qasim had stopped to give his daughter, Amira, a drink from the canteen. The water was warm and alkaline from the purification tablets and their meagre ration was almost gone. Qasim would forgo his share for his princess who had her mother’s eyes. But they would need to find water soon.
“Shukraan, ‘aby,” Amira said in her little bird’s voice, that had been nothing more than a whisper for weeks, as if the bombs and machine guns had stolen all the voices of all the children to roar as monsters over their screams.
“Nahn dhahbwn, sadiqi,” We are going, my friend, Qasim, with his gap-toothed smile, cheerfully called back to Hassan.
“Ghabiun mubtasim,” Hassan muttered, pulling his head back into the cab of the rusting Toyota.
As he stooped to pick up his shovel, the sun glinted at the cusp of a dune below them, winking in the corner of Qasim’s eye. He straightened up and squinted into the waves of sand, rolling down away in a haze of heat from the side of the road.
Hassan cursed in English and the door handle of the Toyota truck clunked impatiently.
“Ma hwa, ‘aby,” What is it, dad? Jamal, Qasim’s ten-year-old boy, asked.
“Arjie ‘illaa alealmal,” Back to work, Hassan was shouting, hoisting his Kalashnikov from its shoulder strap into his hands.
“Maa’,” Water, shouted Hassan, pointing. “Allahu Akbar, maa’.”
Each step slid into unbearably hot sand, slowly roasting their feet. Little Amira only had on sandals. Her feet blushed red but she did not complain. Like her father and brother, she carried the empty plastic canisters over her shoulders slung with fraying blue nylon rope. She looked up occasionally, not so much to see where the adults were leading them but to check if Lima, her dead cousin, always standing in her flowery dress, was waving for Amira to follow. But as much as she wanted to, Amira knew that she couldn’t. She hadn’t been able to follow Lima since the last they played hide and seek. Lima had run into an old apartment block, giggling in her flowery dress. Amira began to follow, crossing the dusty street, stopping when she heard the air ripping overhead. The blast knocked her off her feet. When she got up, the apartment block was gone, and Lima didn’t play hind and seek anymore. Instead, as she did now, Lima beckoned from the corner of Amira’s eye, for her to come and play once more.
They crested the third dune and there it was: a stream, or a spring at least, running across the back of a small compound, with mud-brick buildings on three sides, making a courtyard with a well in the middle and the stream trickling along the back.
The glare of the sun hid it, and so it wasn’t until the smell hit them that Hassan hissed for them to stop, raising his rifled to push to the front of the group. Qasim gathered the last of his family behind him as Hassan crept forward.
The bandit passed between two halves of a man, ripped from groin to shoulder. A pall of flies feasted on him, barely moving from their meal. Against the wall of a mud building, four more bodies slumped, as if a troop of bloody puppets had their strings cut when their throats were opened. Here the flies obscured their faces, but Hassan couldn’t control his belly. Bile rose burning in his throat and he vomited between his legs. The noise unsettled the mass of flies who rose, buzzing angrily, before descending back to their putrefied feast. Covering his nose with his forearm, Hassan edged between the buildings, while Qasim scanned the surrounding area. The corpses didn’t bother him anymore, especially not the corpses of strangers, but he said a silent prayer for them as he would for any of God’s creations.
One arm still covering his nose, Hassan beckoned them to come between the mud-brick structures. Qasim told his children to close their eyes. They walked with heads pressed into their father’s side, pretending not to look. He liked to protect them. Jamal and Amira both peaked to see the flies buzzing and scratching against each other. Bodies, so many bodies, they had seen, but not flies, not like this. In the city, the dead are cleared, at least eventually, or hidden out of sight under rubble, like Lima. Once a child has kissed the lips of their dead mother, and their eldest sister who was like a second mother to them, and two twin brothers who’d learnt to walk to the sound of gunfire, and so many uncles, aunts and cousins, then what fear could the bodies of strangers hold?
Dervishes of dust twirled across the court yard, saying their prayers. Blood smattered on her dirty dress, dead little Lima stood at the well waiting for Amira. They jogged over with the plastic canisters nocking and tangling around their bodies. They made haste, not wanting to stay too long and press their luck, something in short supply in this place. When Hassan began lowering the bucket down the shaft, Lima had gone, hiding for Amira to seek. The trafficker swore at Qasim to take over and fill the canisters, while he walked the perimeter and checked the stream. The bucket dropped deep into the earth. Sweat pearled on Qasim’s forehead and he whispered husky approbations to his children, who struggled with the canisters that sloshed clumsily with reddish-brown water.
Jamal grunted putting down his first full canister and lifted his second to his father. They were engrossed in their toil and didn’t notice Amira look away to something over in the corner of her eye. Her little nut-brown legs stood for a moment, as if undecided whether she should go and play with Lima, who beckoned from between the buildings. Amira wanted to play. It had been so long since they had played any games. She turned to look at her father and brother. They seemed occupied and content in their work. There was no need for her. All of Amira’s canisters were full and there would be at least a few minutes until they were ready to climb back up the dunes.
Her little legs carried her across the courtyard to follow Lima, who had disappeared with a silent giggle of the dead.
A small dirty lake, the final canister sloshed when it was put down next to the other seven. Qasim first stretched his arms to heaven and then, putting his hands behind his hips, he arched his back. “Allahu Akbar, Jamal. Allah ‘aetaa,” God is great, Jamal. He has provided.
“Nem ‘abi,” Yes father, replied Jamal.
“Ayn alfata?” Where is the girl, Hassan interrupted them? He had returned from his reconnoitre, scowling even more than usual. He did not like this place. He did not like this whole blighted country anymore, but this place, in particular, he did not like. It may have been an oasis and a lifeline but like all good things, he knew it would have a price, and the price was always high and getting higher in this land. An oasis covered in mutilated, festering bodies in an area the caliphate had only just lost but wanted to claim back, in a land where boarders are as fluid as the dirty waters in their canisters, was a place they should not linger. And now his stupid, smiling cargo had gone and lost one of his children.
The light which was never far from Qasim’s face snuffed out. He spun around looking, searching, frantically scanning the courtyard and the surrounding buildings. “Amira,” he called.
“Shh,” hissed Hassan covering the father’s mouth. Qasim struggled with the younger man’s hand, to pull it away so that he could shout again. It was then they heard her. Her screams hurried through the dunes to her father’s ears. Qasim ran towards his little bird’s cries, his son following. Hassan cursed them both. He thought briefly about leaving them and escaping back to the truck, but he did not. And if he were asked why he could not have given an answer. For few men truly know the good that lies in their hearts and why sometimes they listen to it and at other times they do not. That they might be part of a greater plan was something Qasim had no doubt of but was something Hassan believed he had no need for. That Hassan was good and brave in the last of his hours on earth was some consolation, though not to Hassan, not while he lived at least. What he thought when he was dead, who knows? For the dead keep secrets from the living.
As bloody and wretched as it was, she would not have screamed if it had been dead. It was that it first twitched and then grabbed her ankle that made her cry out. Amira had found Lima here, hiding just over the crest of a dune, a little way from the side of the compound. Amira had approached panting with the effort of running up the dune, of which she saw Lima’s night-black hair disappear behind. Her dead cousin stood over the thing, half uncovered by desert winds, looking at it as only the dead can look at the living, with a mix of pity and sympathy. Amira drew in her breath and stared at the thing between them. They had found other bodies and pieces of bodies before. They had become like other objects familiar and occasionally ubiquitous to them: banal and therefore nothing to be afraid of. The dead don’t try to shoot you or launch mortars onto your family home. But then a blood encrusted hand was clutching Amira’s leg, and a living man who looked like a dead one was definitely not ubiquitous, nor banal and absolutely something to be terrified of. The little bird found her voice and screamed and screamed and screamed.
Hassan pointed his gun first at the thing, and unable to shoot it because Qasim got in the way, he erratically looked left and right down the barrel of his rifle, scanning for other threats. Qasim pulled at the bloody hand unable to break its grip. Amira screamed. Jamal began to cry, falling to his knees to help his father.
The thing spoke but at first, they could not hear it over the cacophony of panic. When Hassan finally realised it was speaking, it was not that he heard it. Rather, in his desperate, ineffectual tugging and prising, his eyes fell upon the thing. Its mouth moved, only weakly but enough to draw Qasim’s attention, enough to speak to his heart, and make him look beyond the terror of his daughter. There again the lips moved, for it did have lips, cracked and swollen from exposure, and with the lips were a nose and eyes and then of course the rest of a face, the face of a man or possibly a boy in desperate need. That the young man was grotesque in appearance, missing patches of hair, a nose obliterated and a mouth wretched in its ruin, did not matter. To Qasim’s heart he was the same as this country, God’s creation disguised in blood and sand.
Qasim hushed them all. So odd was this request, given their previous hysterics, one by one they quieted and looked to what Hassan had perceived but they could not. Only Amira still cried.
“Hwsh, ya altayr alsghyr,” Hush, little bird, Qasim consoled his daughter. “Hwsh, ya altayr alsghyr.” She quieted to a whimper. In so doing, they could hear the young man’s whisper. “Water,” he said.
Qasim had little English but he knew this. “Ma’, Jamal, ma’.” Jamal, with his father’s goodness of heart, flew back down the dune to the compound.
“Water,” the man pleaded still holding Amira’s ankle. Qasim began to uncover the rest of the man, the other half of whose naked body lay under a foot of sand. Jamal reappeared, gasping, soaked in sweat, carrying one of the canisters of dirty brown well-water. They hadn’t time to boil it or add purification tablets. Instead, Qasim cupped his hands while Jamal poured water into them. He fed it to the bloodied man, who mouthed at it as a dying fish mee-maws in the hull of a fishing boat. The water wet his lips and tongue, spilling down his chin and cheeks and then his throat. He spluttered and coughed pathetically, choking.
“Innah mayit,” said Hassan.
“La ‘iinah hayi,” No he is alive, replied Qasim.
This could have been the time for Hassan to question his moment of good intentions, in which an argument would have flared about helping a man who spoke English and was as good as dead and lying outside of what looked like a former jihadist compound, as they fled for the boarder. As he, Hassan, was the one with a machine gun, and a friend in the truck that was waiting for them, and that he was prepared to leverage those things against the lives of Qasim and his remaining children, he would have won the argument. However, at that moment the horn of their truck started to sound.
Hassan, looked between his charges, the compound with the water below, and the direction of the horn that continued to blare. He did the calculations for all the courses of action, finding none of the equations balanced but that one was better than the others despite its unlikelihood. “Hayaa,” come on, he said beginning to run towards the sound of the horn. Qasim told Jamal to help him, and between them they lifted the limp body of the injured man under the arms, setting off after Hassan. Amira struggled to lift the one canister of water they had and followed her father and brother. She turned to say goodbye to Lima, but she was gone. Amira was sure she’d see her cousin again soon.
They called to Amira from the flatbed of the truck. Mohammad, their other saviour and sometime mercenary and bandit, sat in the cab of the Toyota looking anxiously in his mirrors, revving the engine. Hassan stood on the door frame to the passenger side, looking back down the desert highway through a pair of binoculars. Jamal shouted. Qasim jumped out of the back of the truck, now that the injured man was on board, and ran to his daughter, taking the heavy canister of water from her. “Arkudy, ya altayr alsghyr ” Run, little bird, he told her.
As soon as they jumped on, Mohammed sped off, sand spitting into the air from the spinning wheels. Qasim and his two children looked out of the back of the truck, sand and dust obscuring the highway. Lima waved to Amira from the middle of the road, disappearing into the cloud. The injured man was neither awake nor asleep, laying in a fitful delirium between those two worlds, in which men are monsters and monsters are men.
“Perdition,” was printed on the thin fuselage of the Reaper drone. It was sprayed there by a man named Larry, who loved his job. High up, the wind screamed, but the drone flew on uncaring. Its cameras looked down, tracking two trucks racing along the highway. The first truck had stopped at a known ISIS compound that had been eliminated a little under a week ago, by special operations. The second truck, flying the black flag of ISIS, had joined the first at speed and now they travelled in a spread-out convoy, a typical tactic to limit the damage of IEDs, mines and road blocks. Better to lose only one truck and give the other a chance of escape. As the sun waned and the boarder drew nearer, the trucks began to get closer together. All this intel was silently reported back to Larry from his drone, who in turn passed it up the chain of command and waited.
“Did you watch the fights last night?” Larry asked Dwayne.
Dwayne took a swig of sweet coffee and adjusted his junk, pulling at the gusset of his uniform. Things always got uncomfortable towards the end of a shift. “UFC?” asked Dwayne
“Saw the clips on Facebook. I DVRed it. Any good?”
“Sure,” said Larry. “Say, how’s it going with Julie-Ann?” Dwayne was about to reply with some lurid details involving a BBQ apron, some of which was true, when they were interrupted.
“If you ladies are quite finished?” The voice buzzed in their ears. “Larry, contact details are coming through now.”
A star in the early evening sky winked overhead, a glint flashing faintly in the young man’s eyes before Qasim covered him with a blanket to protect him from the last of the day’s sun. The young man couldn’t remember his own name. Everything was a maelstrom of pain, distorting what tumbled across his eyes and through his mind. He saw a man with a gap-toothed smile, the blue of the sky behind him, and then black. Under the blanket he found himself in the bare tunnel of a fuselage, men in military fatigues behind him, a wolf’s head adorned the insignia on their arms. A light turned red and he jumped out of the plane into the night. Bathed in moonlight, he fell to earth. Light burnt away the night in a phosphorous flare. A sun beat down a suffocating heat from a cloudless sky. Coarse sand filled his mouth. Two pretty, little girls, with black hair and dark brown eyes, looked down at him. One of them was alive, the other dead. He reached for the ankle of the living and she screamed becoming a wolf massive and terrifying. It snarled and foamed, yellow eyes staring back at him. Now he was with his grandfather, wet and cold, hidden in the scrub, staring down the barrel of a rifle. They should not be here. They had no tag, but the lambs were being killed, and he needed to learn. His hands shook, his breathing was erratic. Snatching at the trigger the gun kicked into his shoulder. A wolf skipped back, a spray of earth three feet wide of him and a crack in the air a moment later. Yellow eyes looked up to the scrub on the high ground. The grandfather grunted, the boy blinked, and the wolf was gone, like a ghost in a dream.
Jamal held his little sister, she held her knees, and Qasim held them both, pushing them as flat as he could into the rusting metal of the flatbed. The engine burred, working itself towards overheating. The desert swept by in one direction, as bullets zipped the other way, from the chasing truck with a black flag. Each crack of gunfire produced a muffled squeal from Amira and sometimes Jamal too. Qasim whispered a prayer into their ears. Hassan leant out of his window and fired back. Amira squealed at this too. All the while, the bloodied young man they found in the desert, murmured to himself under his blanket, neither asleep nor awake.
“Bsreh,” Faster, Hassan shouted at Mohammed, hitting Hassan on the shoulder with the palm of his hand.
Dust, thrown up by their wheels, gave them some cover, obscuring them from the black-flagged truck. But the dust also disguised just how much their pursuers closed the distance between them and bullets began to ping from metal.
Sand whispered under their feet. The desert was green and black through their goggles. They shouldn’t be here. No one will come for them. They are spread out slipping down the dunes. They wait on the edge of the darkness, between two worlds: life and death. Movement on his six, as they begin to flank the compound. A small explosion turns his head that way and a young man falls to earth, no longer attached to his legs, screams wailing from his lungs. Lights blare, voices raise, guns fire, many guns. Wolves creep from the compound, snarling and firing. Two flee from the side of the buildings, into the blackness of the desert. He follows.
The young man bucked in the flatbed. Qasim saw him as the bullets ricocheted. Jamal had made water in his pants and both he and his sister had stopped screaming and shook instead. To the crack of gunfire and the whine of an over-heating engine, orange sand and charcoal exhaust fumes billowed in turmoil behind them. Through it loomed the chasing truck.
Drifts of sand had encroached onto the road. The heavier drifts had to be swerved, while the lighter ones merely slowed their progress, skidding them to and froe, clearing the way for their pursuers to inch closer and closer.
The muscles in Mohammad’s arms burnt from clutching the wheel, fighting to keep control. On the horizon, the boarder loomed. Hassan snapped his last magazine into his rifle, and as if to say goodbye to his brother in arms, he gripped Mohammad on the shoulder. “Allahu Akbar,” he told him, turning away to pull himself out of his window. Hassan sat on the window frame, one hand holding the handle attached to the roof inside. Pulling the trigger with his other hand, he screamed: “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.” The ferocious kick of the gun was nothing to his grip. He held it as if God had given him the power. Shells hailed in gyrating arcs, to fall through the cloud of dust enveloping them, as if to fall into the abyss. If Hassan had forgotten his soul in the last few years, doing whatever he needed to stay alive, even if that meant benefiting from other people’s desperation, for that moment blazing against evil men, he was brave and beautiful and pure again. As pure as a child climbing a fig tree in the garden of paradise.
A bullet, hard and molten hot, buzzed like a bee, vibrating the air. Hassan’s heart silenced the bee, which flew in the front of his chest shortly before it exited his back. The twelve-millimetre round shattered five ribs on its way out, taking pieces of his pulmonary system with it. As if in prayer, Hassan’s head slumped onto his chest. The arm holding the gun fell limply to his side, bouncing pathetically until the gun’s weight pulled it from his hand. Slowly, the grip of Hassan’s other hand began to slacken, as if gently realising he was now dead, and he could let go.
Mohammed could see the boarder-crossing growing larger but still too far away. As a faint moon first appeared in the early evening sky, pale and half-crescent, they hit a bump. Hassan fell from the truck. Mohammed screamed. The blanket slid from the bloodied young-man, when from the heavens came a roar loud enough to silence the screams of children.
All was nearly at an end.
The young man stood alone in the desert night, cracks of gunfire behind him. Again, he had blinked, and the wolves had disappeared like ghosts. A full desert moon came out from behind the cloud, and he appeared from the blackness of the night. Perhaps it was he who was the ghost? Perhaps they haunted each other’s dreams? He pulled off his goggles. Yellow eyes stalked from the gloom. His hands did not shake. His breathing was even. He would not miss. He is a ghost and so are they.
The Reaper Drone’s Hellfire missile made a direct hit on the black-flagged truck. Its jihadist drivers burnt in the Hellfire-missile’s payload that punched a hole into the highway. The blast wave of pressure and flame rippled forward, compressing the air in front of it, pulverizing all in its path: saviour and mercenary Mohammed, pious Qasim, loving Jamal, and the beautiful little bird Amira. Their bodies felt pain. It was a terrible pain, but it was quick. Was it worse than the long pain they had endured, the pain of losing mothers, wives, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins? Who can tell? They cannot be asked. They would not answer.
The body of the bloodied young man took the pulverising wave of hellfire as well. It was thrown high and far from the truck along with the other bodies of his travelling companions. More of his bones broke. His flesh burnt. His hair singed. All he felt was the last wolf blindside him with a knife and screams to God. Biting, snarling, shaking. The wolf buried him there, leaving him for dead, slipping back into the desert to hide among the sheep.
Black smoke coiled upward from the burning trucks. Dusk turned the desert sky to a deep blue. Stars began to glitter from heaven. The crescent moon was no longer meek. It shone its reflected silver light into the thickening blue of dusk. Its beams found the body once again of the wounded young man, as it had many nights passed, holding him between these two worlds.
Before the battle for his consciousness was lost, the young man’s eyes flickered. Looking up from the sand, where the beetles crawl, he saw them. Two bandits walked into the distance, fading with each step. A father holding the hands of his children, a boy and a beautiful little girl, walked the way of the two bandits into nothingness. Only a girl in a flowery dress was left. She stood looking at the young man, as only the dead can look at the living. At last, she waved to him and ran after her family, fading to nothing under the desert moon.
Thank you to Mohammed Alamer for help with the Arabic translations.
Once Dan was an academic but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s home town, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. He tries write the kind of stories he wants to read and aims for readers to want to turn the page. Dan’s work has featured in The Incubator, STORGY & the horror magazine Devolution Z.
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