First Gulf War; Iraq, 1991
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
The words were whispered under his breath, his fingers rubbing the beads of the rosary. His eyes were squeezed shut, his hands trembling. He couldnt stand up, could only slump on his knees and lean back against the rough, cool stone of the wall.
He wasnt sure if the silence was real or if his hearing had been blasted away. Whatever the case, the world was silent around him.
A bullet bit into the wall near his head, and he threw himself to the side. He felt a brief spat of pain as his head crashed against the ground. He’d heard no gunshot, so his ears must not have been working. Another bullet, a third and fourth, and then a whole murderous hailstorm impacted the wall and the dirt road, shredding the stone and flecking him with stinging shards of rock. He lunged to his feet, stumbled into a run, and ducked into a doorway. Bullets followed him, thunking into the wood of the door, disappearing into the darkness within, zinging and ricocheting. He let himself fall to the floor, then rolled over and curled into the corner.
Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
His ears rang, popped, and cleared. Immediately, the sound of assault rifle fire filled the air, a harsh hackhackhack, a pause…hackhackhack; the whistle-whoosh of an RPG, followed by a brief, fraught, waiting silence…a deafening crump as the grenade exploded nearby, shaking dust from the ceiling.
A man screamed shrilly in Arabic a few feet away…“Allah! Allah!”
Another voice, farther away, screaming curses in English.
Hackhackhack…an AK-47; crackcrackcrackcrack…an American M16A2 returning fire.
He managed to rise to his feet without vomiting or collapsing. He was in no way ready for this—hed signed up to take pictures, write a story, not to be shot at. He was a journalist, not a soldier. Stop shooting at me, he wanted to say but couldnt.
He huddled against the wall and inspected his camera, breathed a sigh of amazed relief to see it intact. A bit miraculous, actually, considering how hed been throwing himself around. He poked his head around the corner, scanned the scene for a shot.
There: a man in a red-and-white checkered keffiyeh standing on a rooftop firing an AK-47, the stock of an RPG poking up above his head. The photographer swapped lenses, wide-angle for telephoto, focused in on the insurgent—snap—caught him as he lifted the rifle to his shoulder, one eye squinted—snap—again as he lifted the rifle above his head in jubilation. The photographer flopped down to street level, lying prone, snapsnapsnap, capturing the dying slump and fall of a Marine, the tortured disbelief on his face, the arms clutched about his red-weeping throat, then snapsnapsnap as his buddy knelt in the street beside him to draw bead on the insurgent, crackcrackcrack…crackcrack: The keffiyeh jerked and was stained pink.
He heard a rustle and whimper from a far corner: a boy and his sister huddled together, holding tightly to one another. The boy stood up slowly, resolve hardening in his eyes. He reached down to the floor, lifted a rifle, and aimed it. The photographer raised his hands to show he was unarmed; the boy jabbered something in Arabic, motioned at the photographer with the muzzle. He shook his head, edged backward, lowered his hands: he had a Beretta 9mm at the small of his back, a precaution hed hoped he would never have to use.
If hed learned anything as an embedded journalist, it was the single rule of warfare: kill or be killed.
He was already making justifications, excuses.
The boy began to yell, shrill and angry. The photographer backed up against the wall, hand edging slowly towards the hard lump of the pistol against his spine. He gripped the gun tightly, preparing to jerk and fire. If he had been facing an adult, the move would have been obvious, but this was a boy, just a boy, no more than ten or eleven.
He held the AK like he knew how to use it, however, and the desperate terror in his eyes spoke of a short life lived in a perpetual war zone. He probably had been lulled to sleep by gunfire and explosions as much as mother’s song and father’s arms. He probably had played with that rifle as a toddler, sitting on his father’s lap, lifted it, pretended to shoot it, making the sounds boys make the world over when playing soldier. This boy, though, had actually seen war. He playacted things hed seen, not just scenes from the imaginations of sheltered children. He had seen uncles and cousins shrouded by old blankets, still and cold, had seen Marines tromp through his village, tall and arrogant.
Maybe he had been given a candy bar by one, a cuff on the head by another, a cold stare by a third. Maybe his father had been killed by an American in desert camo. Maybe he was left alone with his sister. Now, here was an American, and he had a chance to even the score. What did this boy know about rules of engagement, or the dishonor of killing an unarmed noncombatant? Of course, the boy couldn’t know anything of this, and of course, the journalist was not unarmed.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…
He pulled the pistol as quickly and smoothly as possible, fired once, twice. The boy jerked sideways, left arm blossoming red, dust pattering from the missed second shot. The boy fell in slow motion, blood blooming like a pink, spreading rosette. The look in his eyes was something the photographer would never forget. The boy looked at the American, his expression doleful, accusing, baffled, hurt, as if a toy had been stolen.
His sister was screaming, but the journalist couldn’t hear it, his hearing gone out again, but her mouth was opened wide and her chest was heaving and she was leaning over her brother. She turned to the photographer, screaming at him, shaking her head no no no.
He lowered the pistol, turned away, head clutched in trembling hands, trying to shake the vision of the boy falling. He didnt see the girl stop screaming and take up the AK-47. She held it as she has seen so many times before: low at her waist, strap hanging like a distended belly, black muzzle-mouth wavering, two fingers on the trigger, scarred and scuffed wooden stock tucked into her underarm.
She pulled the trigger, and it was the roar of the rifle that brought him back to the present. She missed, and he was frozen. He could shoot her brother because he was a boy and would grow into an insurgent by the time he was a teenager, if he wasnt already.
This was just a girl, twelve years old, if that. Maybe she had just begun wearing the hijab, maybe she was the only mother the boy had. He couldn’t shoot her. He just couldn’t.
She had no such compunction; she did not miss a second time.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.
Agony ripped through him as the hot bullets tore apart his chest and stomach. She emptied the entire clip into him, dropping the rifle when it went clickclickclick, empty. She fell to her knees beside her brother, weeping now, limp and sobbing. She did not look at the American as he lay on the ground bleeding out.
He was floating now. He saw the girl, far away somehow, thin shoulders shaking. The pain was distant, and he was cold. There was no sound once again, but this time the silence was a welcome respite from the cacophony of hell. The silence was an enveloping cocoon of comfort.
He heard the Hail Mary once again, but he was not thinking it, not saying it. It was a prayer whispered to him across the chasm of eternity:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.
Then: May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.
He recognized that…what was it? Where had he heard those words before?
Then it came to him…Chaplain McGillis said them, whispered them to Jimmy Carson when he was gasping his last breath, to Andrew Chavez and to Lucas Haney as they died.
The Last Rites…
The American heard McGillis’ voice in his head as he whispered the Eucharist and the Viaticum. Perhaps not in his head. Perhaps next to him, kneeling and kissing his small silver cross, fingers on his forehead.
The silence spread, the cold deepened. . . peace like a river drowning him in its black embrace. . .
There was no white light. There was only blackness, and silence, and cold.
First Gulf War; Iraq, 1991
The American, he dies slowly. Not like Mama, who died instantly, in a spray of pink blood. I remember when Mama died. I tried to wipe the blood from my face, but I only smeared it worse, making my face sticky, like a mud-mask. He does not die like Papa, either, who was killed by a single stray bullet to the head, sudden and silent. The American, he dies like Uncle Ahmed, slowly, and in pain. Something about being shot in the belly, it causes such horrid suffering. Uncle Ahmed, he cried out to Allah to save him, weeping so piteously for so long that I forgot to be sad and just wanted him to die so the awful moaning and cursing and pleading would stop. Allah forgive me, but I did wish it. Not only once, but many times.
This American, however, he is not so noisy. He lies there bleeding from the belly and the chest, making a sucking noise every time he breathes. He does not cry, or scream, or clutch himself, as if trying to hold his life in with weakening arms. He just lies there, muttering to himself quietly, staring up at the ceiling, fingering those little wooden prayer beads. He works the beads as if they give him comfort, as if they, along with the strange words he speaks, could take away the pain.
Hassan, my poor brother, is noisy, moaning and cursing. He stares up at me, trying to breathe slowly, clutching at my arm, mouth working. I weep quietly, put my fingers over his mouth, tell him I love him, tell him he will be fine, he will be fine. I unwrap my hijab, rip a piece from it, and wind the length of fabric tightly around his bleeding arm. Hassan, he only gasps, looking terrified, and holds my gaze and clenches his teeth as I cinch the cloth tight around his wound.
I feel shame and guilt wash over me when I look at the American, dying alone. The anger that took me over, caused me to pick up the gun and shoot him—the anger is gone, and I feel hollow, empty like a water jug. I know Allah will forgive me, but will the American? He does not look evil. He looks kind, and young. He is tall and thin, with bright red hair and a beard that is not quite a beard, the stubble and scruff of a man who has not shaved in many days. His eyes are blue, very bright, startling in their intensity.
He stumbled in upon us, fleeing from the bullets as we had, clutching a camera and breathing as if scared, holding the beads by his chin and praying. I could not understand his words, but I knew he was praying. His eyes were closed, and his mouth was moving, but he was not speaking out loud. Prayer is prayer, even if he was not praying to Allah as he should. Perhaps Allah will hear him anyway, I remember thinking. Maybe all gods are the same god, only with different names, and a prayer to one is a prayer to all.
I want that to be true, as I watch the American struggle for breath, clinging stubbornly to life. I want him to have comfort, to have salvation that would carry his soul to heaven. I do not want to have sent him to hell. He looks so afraid, rubbing those wooden beads and praying, bleeding to death.
No one should have to die alone and afraid.
He took some pictures with his camera, braving the storm of bullets, peeking around the door post and popping back in, as I have seen other men do, only they did it with guns instead of a camera. I wonder what his pictures look like. Do they show death in all its many forms? My people dying, his people dying, each killing the other.
I do not know why they fight.
Then the American heard Hassan moving, and Hassan got angry, although he was more afraid than angry. When boys and men are afraid, they turn it into to anger, quickly, in the way the blue hot sky becomes dark with black clouds when a sudden storm rushes in. Hassan was very afraid. He only wanted to protect me, to be a man, to be brave, and so he made himself very angry, but he was just a boy. The American was not dangerous, not until Hassan pointed Papa’s gun at him. I did not want Hassan to shoot, but I was frozen with fear. When I saw the American reaching behind his back, I knew in my stomach and my heart that something bad was going to happen.
And it did, so fast. The American drew his gun, quick as a viper striking, and the air was filled with the thunder of gunfire. Hassan cried out, jerked backward, fell to the dirt floor. The sound was deafening, made my ears ring.
I was overcome by anger then. He was my brother, and we were alone. We were just frightened children. I had to protect my brother. The anger overtook me. I could not help it. It was as if I was dreaming, in the way that I was moving without being able to control what I was doing. I reached down, hearing vaguely the sound of screaming somewhere far away, picked up the heavy rifle, and fired it. I missed, and I thought for a moment that he might shoot me, but he did not. I was glad. I didnt want to die. He shook his head slightly, and I saw some kind of resolve harden there in his vivid blue eyes. Was he resolving to kill me, since I held a gun?
I could not die. Hassan needs me. Aunt Maida needs me. My finger jerked on the trigger, and the American was ripped apart, slumped to the ground.
My legs would not support me any longer, and I knew the screaming was coming from me.
When Hassan quiets and is able to sit up, I let myself cry soft tears, silent tears. I hear the American whispering, hear him sob and sigh a breath, hear the beads clicking together. I stand up, brush the dirt from my knees, and go over to him. He looks at me, but I do not think he sees me. Perhaps he sees someone else, maybe his mother, or a friend, or a wife.
I take his hand in mine. I do not care that he is an infidel, and that I will be unclean from touching a man like that. I only know that Allah would want me to pray for him. So I pray. I pray the prayer to ease his passing into Allah’s arms, not knowing whether the god he prays to was like Allah or if the beads themselves were his god, or if he only prayed to his ancestors, like the people I learned about in school, before I stopped going. I pray, and I let myself cry for him, because if he has a mother, or a sister, or a wife, I know they would want someone to weep at his death.
He dies while I pray, and I close his eyes, as I closed Mamas, and Papas, and Uncle Ahmeds. I fold his hands over his prayer beads. They are smooth and worn from being rubbed so often. I place his camera on his stomach as well, so that when the other Americans find him, they will be able to see his pictures.
I stand up again and go to the doorway, trying not to see the Americans body. I feel very grown up as I creep carefully toward Aunt Maida’s house, Hassan trailing behind me, clutching his arm, teeth grinding against the pain. I feel old in my heart, tired in my soul.
I am glad I prayed for the American, and I hope his god heard me.
I pray to my god, to Allah, and wonder if he hears me.
* * *
The fighting has moved away from where we live, Hassan and Aunt Maida and I. The bombs flash in the night, shaking the earth until dawn. Gunfire rattles and cracks, and there are faint yells and screams. It is the constant sound of death. I hear the whump-whump-whump of American helicopters, the high howl of jets, the rumble of tanks and the things that carry many soldiers, like tanks but without the cannons. It is all far away now, though.
Hassans arm heals slowly, and he burns with anger, and with impatience to join the f
I beg him to stay here, where it is something like safe. Aunt Maida just sits at the table, staring with blank eyes at the wall, and she does not say anything. After her husband, my Uncle Ahmed, died she began to drift away in her mind, so that she will not have to miss him anymore. She will die soon, I think, and then it will be only me and Hassan in this world.
Aunt and Uncle and Mama and Papa each had very little money, and now it is only Aunt Maida. Life continues, despite the war, despite the death all around. Shops open in the morning to sell food, the stalls with their hawk-eyed vendors. I try to beg for food, to steal it, but I get little. Hassan is hungry, and so am I. Aunt Maida says nothing, does not move, but I think her body is eating itself to keep her alive, and soon there will be no more body to eat, and she will close her eyes forever.
I pray to Allah to save her, to wake her up so she will take care of Hassan and me, because I am just a girl and I do not know how. I pray to Allah to protect Hassan, to keep him away from the fighting. I think of the dying American and how his praying did not save him. Uncle Ahmed called on Allah to save him, and he died. I prayed for Allah to spare Mama and Papa, but they died, too. I am beginning to wonder if Allah hears me. Maybe because I am only a child he does not listen. Perhaps he only hears the prayers of adults.
I do not think I will pray anymore if Aunt Maida dies and leaves us alone.
* * *
I wake up to early morning sunlight streaming in through the boarded-up window, piercing the gloomy gray of our small house. It is still, too still. I sit up, adjusting my dress on my shoulders. My head covering, or what is left of it, is on the ground beside me, but I do not put it on yet. My hair is long and loose and tangled, glinting black and almost blue on my shoulder. I should brush it, but I do not have time, because I must continue to search for food for Aunt Maida and Hassan and me.
I look around without standing up. The house is so small I can see it all from where I sit on my bed beneath the window, next to the door. There is the kitchen, a stove and an empty refrigerator. There is the couch, threadbare and ripped, empty. Hassan is gone. I feel panic in my belly, knowing he is too young to understand what he is doing, but I cannot go after him yet.
Something else is wrong. I find Aunt Maida in her chair by the little black and white TV, now always off. She is still sitting straight up, her hands folded in her lap, staring at the wall, but her thin chest does not rise and fall as it has for so many weeks now. I managed to feed her for a while, some soup heated on the stove, then some bread and beans I bought, found, or stole. Then she turned her face away and would not eat anything. She would let me pour water into her mouth, so at least she would not die of thirst, which I think is worse than dying of hunger, although I do not know why I think that.