It’s difficult to look at yourself, so you don’t. You go days without seeing your face. You might catch a glimpse on a building window when your patrol roles through Kandahar, but you have a helmet and sunglasses to protect you.
The summer breeze from the Arabian Sea tenders no moisture. This betrayal, it simmers your blood and sucks your skin taut over the edges of your bones. In the daylight you wipe at your face and neck with wet rags. At night you claw at the skin in your sleep, trying to remove it, replace it. Then a beard piercing the chapped skin gets so bad you have to shave. And that will be the first time you notice again.
You swear that the dust and the sand hanging in the air have bent the light to a yellow haze. It’s the same dull amber blush like a patio lantern that hangs over the city at dawn. You comb the bristles with your dirty nails, you look at your teeth and gums, and you examine the pores on your nose. Then you pull down at the dark rings under your eyes and look into the pupils. The crackled mosaic of your irises take you down the trails of fractured red fissures crawling over your eyeball. You’re positive they were white when you got here.
Those first days, you were as high as a kid when the fair comes to town, excited and nervous and sick from the food. You didn’t know what ride to go on first. It’s a war, and you respected that, but you were working. You were here and you were working again.
You were no longer designing new municipal roads curving and rolling into new cul-de-sacs and a green space, or putting up three new traffic lights. That last set with pedestrian flashers outside Black Gully Elementary, you are proud of those. You let little Katie be the first to push the yellow button before crossing.
“Do I go now, Daddy?”
Staying a step behind Katie, you kept a hand between her shoulder blades even though there was no traffic.
And that was it. You didn’t drive by the new residential developments in a municipal truck. You walked by once at night. But the foundations that had been dug remained without houses like a lonely boot at the edge of a road. Then you just sat. Katie left with her mom back east, and you moved back in with your parents, because your mortgage didn’t care if your unemployment stopped. You thought you needed a war.
Here you get to wear a belt again, not ratty shorts and a T-shirt stained with Colonial Grey used on your parent’s new fence. And the tightness of your boot straps pulls your head up. You walk quickly, and you feel everybody looking to you.
So you sent a photograph to Katie. You had the envelope in your hands and you examined the photo one more time; it was clear and sharp. Your cheeks were full and your eyes were bright. You had tried to station yourself in just the right spot, had tried to capture the rolling curves of the tanned gravel retaining walls that lay under the road construction imposing itself from Mushan towards Kandahar, the loaders and packers and tanks grumbling and hissing about the maw of mountains pushing up through the ground like decaying fangs. Then, sliding that photo into that manila envelope, you saw your eyes were definitely white.
Then you think maybe it’s jaundice. Even a healthy man in this country can be tied up in knots in the infirmary with bad tans. You’re eating, but nothing stays in. This place treats your guts like a ketchup packet. The fatigue, the weight loss, the thirst: you have it all, and that empty bottle of Canadian whisky you sleep with under your bunk thinks maybe your eyes are jaundice yellow. Your Popi saw men in Korea drink and drink and drink when he was posted on the 38th parallel. He even knew of Canadian journalists who would trade Canadian whisky for a story. But some of those soldiers would drink themselves into an infirmary bed to get away from the Kapyong Valley and Seoul. But you’ve only been here for a matter of days.
So you search the back of your mind. And there’s Bertrand and Thompson killing time on the dunes as they pounded rifle shots at stray dogs scrapping over garbage. It was your second day. You just got your service pistol for your upcoming patrol with the engineers and the architects. It was a nine-mil. The same Inglis Pistol your Popi used in Korea. You recognize this relic, because you used to fire one off the back porch of the cabin.
“Jesus Christ, don’t shoot the dogs,” you said.
Bertrand’s lip curled up at you, “First Day?” His shirtless, white torso, his tattoo—a neck chain of grey barbed wire—his straight-back shoulders boxed you out. “We’re just keeping on, man.”
“Well you let me know a better way.”
“A better way to what? They have a target range beyond that first ridge.”
“No man, we’re good.” Bertrand wiped the dust from around his rifle with a bandana, then wiped his mouth.
Thompson a large, thick blond, leaned in between you and Bertrand just to look you down. He only smiled before slamming a new clip into his rifle.
“They’re dogs—what if they’re somebody’s pet?” You said.
“Those dogs don’t belong to anybody. They’re walking wild.”
“Those are feral dog?”
Bertrand and Thompson share a laugh. “They are wild dogs. And we are cutting down their numbers.”
“Why?” Thompson thumped your helmet.
“Don’t worry Bob Barker, we won’t kill them all—we still need that additional security barrier.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t know a lot about the wildlife around these parts, do you?”
“You don’t have to be a dick,” you said.
“Can you believe this guy,” Bertrand chucked his thumb at you. “He thinks we’re being dicks. I’m sorry you don’t know about the ‘feral’ dog alarm system. How about… hummingbirds, man? You must know about the hummingbirds.”
Thompson fluttered his hands across your face, his thumbs wrapped together and his wrists crossed.
You shook your head. But you looked into his eyes. They seemed steeped in sand and gravel. Just like yours now.
“What’s a hummingbird?”
Bertrand fired one last shot into the pack of dogs chewing at the piles of garbage spilled on the mountain side. Thompson followed. A dog yelped.
You asked yourself again what a hummingbird is, because you are about to head out on a patrol with Bertrand and Thompson, and you don’t want them snorting and coughing into their hands.
You asked Janzen, that stocky brunette who sat next to you on the plane. She seemed to know everybody’s story, like any good small-town Saskatchewan girl. And she knew. She told you about a young Pakistani boy, maybe ten or eleven, who rode a bike up on a patrol near dawn. The boy was crying. The soldiers kneeled to help. Then the boy jammed his thumb like a dagger under his ribs. “And blew everybody up,” she said before she walked away.
That’s not true you said to yourself. That was a myth. Why would somebody belt a bomb onto a child? You wanted to ask other soldiers, but you didn’t. You wanted to confirm with Bertrand and Thompson. But you didn’t. You walked the length of camp. You skipped supper. At dusk you headed to the west edge following the gravel to the sun falling behind the road construction. You looked to the packers and gravel trucks for the familiar. The feral dogs were yelping, like the coyotes back home, but a barrage of gun fire followed for 20 minutes. Katie. You fished her picture from you left chest pocket, took it in your hand, and followed her smile. It glowed from the three candles dancing over the pink and white icing. You wished later that you could have thanked her for helping you find sleep that night.
Every day following, your thoughts deepened. Inwardly your vision fell away from the present, and the shadow of memory hung over your sight lines. You admit your eyes are a customary yellow, because that third day happened to you. You have Popi’s eyes. They were bone white in all his old photos. Grandma used to talk about how clear and bright-eyed he was. Then after Korea the whiteness became tarnished. At thirty he puttered and shuffled about with a smile, aware and normal. But the downward corners of his eyes, the narrowed crease between his eyebrows, showed you he was just out of reach of any given moment, preoccupied with the memories. Popi only talked about it with me once. Hours after Grandma’s funeral, he sat at the edge of his bed, staring into the closet at Grandma’s shoes and talked of defending himself against an attacking Korean woman. His patrol was in her home. He had picked up a nearby hatchet and was slapping it back into its stump. A shot rung his ears before he noticed it had also burned through his shoulder. The old woman bore down on him with the pistol pointed at his face. The gun misfired three times before he could defend himself. He hadn’t been able to lift his arm because of the instant nerve damage of that first shot, so he snatched the hatchet with his good arm and slammed it into the side of her neck. He said she had dropped onto the floor cross-legged and swallowed her pistol. It did not misfire.
You know where Grandpa was. You are there now, that third day. He is a cute kid, maybe six or seven, darker than most of the boys you saw around. You notice him in the bazaar with an older man, picking through stands of rosy red pomegranates and onyx grapes. The man and you keep meeting eyes. He doesn’t sneer at you. But he doesn’t avoid you either.
The boy, you remember, has on blue clothes. They are the colour of the blue sky the morning after summer ends when autumn pushes a cool breeze around your neck. A fraying bound rectangle of cloth–the size of a matchbox–hangs around the boy’s neck pointing to his heart. Inside is a small copy of the Quran. His kameez comes down to his knees, but it isn’t buttoned all the way.
Off the corner of the bazaar is The Grand Hotel. The clinking of silverware on plates and the white noise of conversation swallows the outdoor cafe. You, Bertrand, and Thompson are escorting contractors and architects and engineers through Kandahar. You never got their names, but they wear pinstriped black and grey suits, thin in the leg. Their hair matches their suits but not the large platinum watches that make a clunking thud against the back of their hands when they pull their wallets from their pockets. You try to engage them, ask about the idiosyncrasies of pouring housing bases for the fibre optic lines across the foothills into the mountains, but they’re only interested in the difference between Turkish and Ukrainian prostitutes.
You are taking them to the National Bank. The bank is only across the street. The bazaar, the cafe, and the patrons, everything doubles in size off the reflection of the foyer windows.
“You can’t do business on an empty stomach,” one of the contractors says.
You take the contractors under the hotel entrance awning, through the lobby and back outside onto the patio. You spot a southeast, third-story window opened in the bank above you; nobody is in it.
Then you see the boy next. He is standing outside the bazaar beside the cafe in the middle of the street. His arms are in the air. He is heading towards you and the contractors. You do not see the old man anywhere. The boy takes off his kufi cap and wipes his tears away. You don’t know why he’s crying.
Bertrand and Thompson, their rifles level to their eyes, translate for the boy, “I don’t know what to do.” They are motioning at the boy’s waist where his kameez unbuttons yelling, “We have a hummingbird.”
You hesitate on that suspicion, looking at the wind whipping at the bottom of the boy’s cloths: a utility belt, a money belt, something? You don’t know what you are looking for on this small boy. He isn’t pointing a gun at you.
You hold your hand up to the boy to stop, drawing the nine-mil. The boy complies with the order to stop, wailing louder at the sight of the pistol. Everything in the cafe pauses, too, until you move the contractors and engineers and architects back to the Nyala. The contractors, they are yelling at you out of a door of the three-ton jeep to get in and drive their asses back to the base. You look to Thompson to take the wheel. But he takes a lean on the hood of the Nyala, his rifle steady.
The cafe clears, women screaming, people ducking inside the hotel or their cars, hiding down behind corners of the concrete buildings.
You gaze into the boy’s face. His nose pushes down towards his lip. His lips push out, spit dripping from the corners. His wailing is deep and long.
You look at the boy’s kameez again, but you can’t see any device. You aren’t even positive the boy isn’t just lost, or maybe he can’t go through with it, maybe he’s turning himself in to you.
You take your eye from the sights. The old world pistol feels clumsy and makes your dehydrated hands look wrinkled and old. You wave Bertrand and Thompson down. “Clear the contractors,” you say dropping onto a knee. You lower the nine-mil, and the boy reaches his hands to you. Then one hand retracts back to his chest. His knuckles bump against his Quran. A single shot thunders through the business corridor.