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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 10 - Don't Sit on the Ground!!

When the woman sitting on the dragon carcass tells you to stay off the ground, she means for you to stay off the freakin' ground!! 

10 – Don't Sit Down.  (No, really: Don't sit down.)

                He had gone to Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  It was nicely massive Army base, stretched across fifty thousand acres of mostly pine and scrub oak growing from rocky clay soil.  Although not quite as far south as Georgia or Alabama, it was still the ideal breeding ground for fierce colonies of fire ants.  Sometimes – when a nest was disturbed by the slap of hands coming down to the ground for pushups – the ants would swarm up from between the cracks in the sidewalk.  They would coat the nearest hand and simultaneously bite down.  And their bites burned like raw habanero rubbed over an open wound.
                The fire tearing into Jonathan’s fingers and his right knee was more like shards of semi-molten glass eating through his skin.  And he couldn’t get up.  The slightest movement felt like he was tearing the skin from his bones.  And then the Iraqi girl was grabbing his free arm, pinning it against the small of his back.  He tried to break free, and she slapped the side of his head so hard his ear rang.
                “ISTEMA’NEE!” she shrieked.  Listen to me!  He reeled back, but she grabbed his ear between her fingers and yanked him back toward her.  “Hal andek Sife?!”
                Sife?  What the fuck was sife?  How the fuck did he know if he had one if he didn’t know what it was?  And what the fuck was happening to his hand?
                The girl slapped him again.  “Sife!” she shouted.  “Ayna sife-ek?  Sekeen?  Nusul?”
                Sekeen – he knew that word.  God, that burned.  It  was eating through the spaces between his fingers.  He could feel the tendons melting into putty.  Omigod, omigod.
                She slapped him again, only harder.  He could feel individual welts from each of her fingers splayed across his face.
                Sekeen, he thought.  Knife.
                “Andee Sekeen!” he said, almost crying.  “Fee Jaybee!  Fee Jaybee!”  In my pocket!  My pocket!
                She eased up just enough on his left hand for Jonathan to reach down and yank out his Gerber.  It wasn’t in a pocket – it was in a pouch clipped to his IBA vest.  Didn’t matter – she yanked it out of his hand.  Then he tipped, nearly falling over.  He reached down with his left hand to steady himself – she grabbed him wrist.  Then she stuffed his gloved fingers in her mouth and bit down until he couldn’t move.  Her molars were clamped so hard he thought she’d break his knuckles.  And all the while, he could feel her fumbling with the pocket tool, yanking open the different blades in search of something, in search of what he didn’t know.
                Then she released his hand.  Or at least the fingers.  She held his left wrist high with one hand while reaching down to his right hand with the other.  Then she was pushing his right hand up out of the dirt by the edge of a blade – he could feel the burning of the knife in his palm, like she was slicing through him in a dozen places at once.  He yanked back on his hand, and it came up.  With it came at least two pounds of soil – he could feel it weighting down his hand.  But the hand was free.  She was shouting commands at him, but he didn’t hear or understand.  And he didn’t care.  The hand was still burning.  He held it in to his chest as she stooped again to cut free his knee.
                The ordeal of minutes felt like hours.  He was no judge – especially with the fall of night, and the pain shooting through him – but he knew it hadn’t been nearly as long as it felt.  Still, he gave in to her lead as she led him over to a low edge of the dragon’s crumpled wing.  Favoring his right side, he slowly lowered himself to the rough, leathery surface.
                Then she peered down into his face.  It was like being interrogated by a ghost, with those dark eyes and dark lips lost in the shadows of her pale face.
                “Hal andek Zow-ruk?”
                Zow-ruk?  What the fuck was that?  He shook his head.  “Ma hatha?”  What’s that?
                She replied with other words he didn’t know.  She began speaking faster, sounding more and more irritated.  He had trouble focusing on what she was saying – his whole right hand had gone numb, and the tingling in his knee was spreading down his shin.  It was like a bad trip to a sadistic dentist – first the hornet stings of hundreds of needles, then the flesh-like-putty feeling of Novocain.
                Then the girl tried charades.  She forked fingers and then flicked her thumb as if lighting a cigarette.  “Hal andek Bik?”
                Bic?  Like the lighter?  He nodded.  “Fi Jaybee,” he said.  In my pocket.  Yes – wasn’t everything?  But it was in the so-called cigarette pocket on his left shoulder – the same pocket with the broken compass.  He nodded to the left with his chin and flexed his elbow to point with his thumb.  At first he thought she didn’t understand, but then he felt her fingers on his bicep.  She was patting him.  After a moment she was pressing in on the compass, and then she had her fingers on the lighter.  It took her a moment to work out the Velcro flap over the pocket, but then she had the lighter out.  The sudden flame was much brighter than he’d expected – it had grown so dark so fast, and his eyes were already halfway adjusted to the night.
                But his eyes readjusted, and the girl took a seat beside him on the dragon’s wing.  He followed with his eyes as she gently took his right arm to turn his palm upward.  And as the flame came in close to his gloved hand, he felt his stomach churn.  The thick clumps of dirt were practically alive.  He could make hundreds, thousands of tiny filaments – like tiny white hairs, but thinner.  Like cilia.  And they were squirming, each of them squirming.  As the flame came in closer still, the individual movements took on a kind of ceaseless frenzy.  Some of the hairs grew suddenly shorter, as if burned away.  But then Jonathan realized what was really happening – the tiny hairs were burrowing through his glove and into his hand.
                The girl’s voice shifted, now.  She spoke in low tones, almost gently.  “La ataharik,” she said.  He wasn’t sure what the words meant, but the instruction was clear enough: don’t move.
                He swallowed.  He bit his tongue as she again took up the knife and brought the flame in close.
                “Laysa behajja ilel Howf,” she said.  “Setakun b’hayr.”  You have no need for fear.  You will be okay.

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