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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 7 - Not in Iraq Anymore

Okay...here's a hint...if there's lots of water, lots of trees, and acres of grass...then it's probably not Iraq.  Yes, I know, hard to believe, Jonathan, but you're somewhere else.  So stop pretending you haven't figured this out...

7 – We’re Not in Iraq Anymore (Duh!!)

            Boots slapping down on hard paved ground.  The futile pump of arms under seventy-eight pounds of Kevlar and ammo and that damn machine gun.  And she disappeared from right before his eyes.  He felt the gust from those wings beating down, and the vortex spun him sideways, knocking him to the ground.  He came down hard on his arm, mashing the machine gun between his hip and his elbow.  He couldn’t breathe, he came down so hard.  For a second he half expected his arm to be broken, or maybe a few ribs.  But he wasn’t lying on the pavement.  He was half-buried in mud.  And the water was soaking through his sleeves and into the insides of his body armor.
            He rolled onto his stomach.  It was time to move.  But he couldn’t.  He felt like throwing up.  He pushed up just enough to get his knees under him.  He knew it was coming back.  He just knew.  He just needed to figure out where it would come from.  A rooftop?  From behind him?
            He turned to get his bearings.  To his left, there were trees in the distance.  Trees with leaves.  And an uneven pasture of green grass in-between.  He turned right – more fields.  Rolling hills.  Grabbing up the two-four-nine, he spun all the way around.  Where was the road?  Where the fuck was the road?
            Behind him, more trees.  Thick trees.  Rows and rows of thick, round trees – straight and pruned like an orchard.  He cocked his head to the side and tried to make sense of that.  What the hell?  Still balanced on one knee, he steadied his grip on the machine gun.  His head feel like he’d gone through the spin cycle.  Concussion, he figured.  He’d probably hit his head coming down.  Or the dragon had knocked him into a wall.
            No – it was worse than that.  The thing must have picked him up.  It must have dropped him somewhere past the buildings.  Maybe onto a farm?  He took his time standing up.  Would he pass out again?  He figured he must have passed out.  But standing up was fine.  It was just the air that was thick – humid.  Wrong.
            Where the fuck’s the desert?  Where the fuck’s the convoy?
            He turned all the way around.  He turned again, slower this time.  He tried to remember which way he’d fallen.  It didn’t help.  All around him was the lumpy, muddy terrain of a tilled field – a field that had been left to the weeds.  His boots sank ankle-deep into the muck, mashing down dandelions and tufts of crabgrass with every step.  And there were butterflies.  Big ones.  Pairs of flopping yellow wings as big across as his hand.  He was staring at the trees, trying to ignore everything else, but then he realized just how many butterflies there were.  Dozens, at least.  And they were flittering everywhere.  And as far as he knew, they had no butterflies in Iraq.  And if they did, could they possibly be that big?  Did they have butterflies that big anywhere?
            Then he caught motion out of the corner of his eye.  Something in the shadows of the trees.  He brought up the machine gun.  The thing was too long to be fired from the shoulder, but he wasn’t about to drop down into the muck.  His socks were already getting soaked.  He stepped up onto the largest tuft of grass he could find, hopping it would take up at least some of his weight as he mashed the roots into the mud.
            Step-by-step, toward the shadows he moved.  There was rustling just behind one of the orchard trees.  He strained his ears to make out the slightest sound, but the sounds of the place were too much.  The butterflies – their wings whispered through the air like sheets of dry parchment.  And there was the incessant chirp and buzz of insects.  And never mind the humidity – his right arm was soaked in water and caked in mud, but he could already feel sweat dripping down the “dry” left arm to his elbow.  As if Iraq could get any worse – now he’d have to add mud and humidity to the skillet-fried hellhole that was his life.
            Treading carefully, he tried to squash as little as possible as he came up on the moving shadow.  He relaxed as soon as he saw her – it was the woman in black.  Or the girl, really.  The hijab had slipped from around her hair, exposing soft chestnut curls beneath.  But it was her face that really caught his attention.  She looked as though ready to kill him.
            “Lematha?” she spat.  Why?
            Lematha what? he wanted to ask, but he had no idea how to put that thought into Arabic.  I just saved your life, he wanted to say, not at all sure how true that might have been.  Had he knocked her away from the dragon?  Judging by the rips in her abaya and the gash across her face, the dragon had raked her over pretty good.  He caught hints of what looked like purple silk under the black abaya, and her jeans were exposed almost up to her knees.  She was very pretty, he realized, not sure how or why that would be important.  It wasn’t until she glared up at him again that he realized he was staring.  And he’d done nothing to answer her question.
            He lowered the machine gun and carefully crouched down to one knee.  Crap, his gear was heavy.  Still, it was better to be at eye level with her as she sat up.  She refused to meet his gaze, though.  Instead she focused her attention first on smoothing out her abaya to cover her jeans.
            “Hal antee b’heyr?” he asked.  Are you okay?
            “Ahna jay’ed jidn,” she said.  I’m great.  And she set her lips in a scowl before turning away.  She gave him only the back of her head as she pinned the hijab back in place over her hair.  By the time she turned his way again, she was as carefully covered as any nun.  Excepting where the right sleeve of her abaya had been torn from the shoulder, exposing a torn strip of purple fabric, bare skin, and spots of blood.
            Jonathan couldn’t help noticing the tear, but he looked away as soon as he realized.  The Iraqi didn’t seem satisfied.  She spat out a stream of words he couldn’t make out.  They sounded gurgled, almost, like the Iraqi dialect lessons he’d taken in those final weeks before he flunked out of language school.
            “La astateeyah an atakelum b’soora,” he said.  I’m not able to speak fast.
            “Hal ek-lukah sura’ah b’kelamek?” she asked.  And it took Jonathan time to figure out what exactly that meant.  She was standing up before he figured out that “ek-lukah” was “your mind.”  By the time he worked out the full meaning, she was shaking the leaves and twigs out of her abaya.  Is your mind as fast as your speech? she had asked.
            Jonathan took that in.  Crouched down on one knee, he had to tip back his head pretty far to see her from under the brim of his helmet.  And when he did, she only glared back.  Oh, that was a great sign.  And here he’d thought he might use that smattering of Arabic learned at DLI to actually make friends with the locals.
            He figured the best course was to ignore the slight.  “Hal tah’rif ey’nuna?”
            “Tah’rif-een,” she corrected, adding on the feminine ending.  And then, in reply: “La.  La ah’rif ey shay.”  No, she said.  I know nothing.  Then she bent down to pick up something shiny from out of the grass.  At first it looked like a bent coat-hook, but Jonathan could tell it had originally been straight.  The slender length of polished metal was badly bent in the middle – he could make out a crack where the metal had been twisted past ninety degrees.  And the edges there were darkened gray, as if the metal had been hit with an arc welder, or possibly held over a fire until the metal was heated enough to glow.
            “Kayf n’wahdah illa el Ard?” she asked.  How will we return to the ground?  And then he realized what she really meant: How will we return to the Earth?
            Jonathan ran that one through his mind again.  Return to the Earth?  What was that supposed to mean?  He shook his head.  It was probably some fluke of Iraqi dialect.  Or maybe it was the name of her town.  He couldn’t tell – it probably wasn’t that important either way.
            But then the girl started walking.  She took off at a brisk pace into the trees.  He called out for her to wait up, but she didn’t even look back.  So he lumbered up to his feet.  He almost ran after her, but one step under the combat load was enough to stop that – he wasn’t about to run after some pissed-off Iraqi girl.  Besides, she couldn’t walk that fast – the abaya kept her steps short.  So it took him only a minute to catch up.  But he was already winded by the time he did.  With his feet sinking into the damp soil and the body armor weighing down his shoulders, walking through the humidy was almost as bad as slogging through a swimming pool for that “water survival” seminar.
            But then the girl stopped so abruptly that he walked right into her back.  He pulled back, of course, but the damage was done.  She muttered something under her breath, but he only caught the phrase “rhabi.”  Stupid.
            He looked away.  They were at the edge of a clearing.  On all sides, the slender orchard trees had been snapped at the trunk.  It looked as though someone had swung a big wrecking ball – or, better still, a bulldozer – through this section of land.  But then there was the low hill lost to the shadows of the trees on the far side of the clearing.  He thought nothing of it, at first – it looked like just another piece of land.  Except that the greenish hues had hints of orange and flecks of red.  And there was the rhythmic up-and-down of breathing.  As Jonathan stared, the dragon once again raised its head.  For a heart-stopping moment, he thought the thing would open that mouth of piano-key teeth and roast him and the Iraqi girl to death.
            The danger was brief.  Within moments, the enormous head settled back to the earth, and the golden hubcap eyes froze in place, the lids only halway up.
            The girl then made her way – albeit slowly – across the narrow clearing.  Holding up her hand to the great empty nostrils protruding from the creature’s muzzle, she made the gentle rubbing motions Jonathan would have expected for a calico cat or maybe a golden retriever.
            The girl’s words were soft, then.  So soft, in fact, that Jonathan had thought she was talking to the dragon or, perhaps, to herself.  But then he made out the words.  “Teq’tool’tuha,” she said.  You killed her.
            Great – there’d be no pleasing her.  He figured she should give thanks that the creature had crashed when it did.  Or that she should be grateful the thing had come down out all.
            It was then, though – admiring the long, long serpentine form of green scales flecked in red and orange – that he noticed how much smaller the dragon had become.  Half of its stomach was gone.  Or half of its belly, at any rate.

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