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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chapter 11 - Morning Walk

What - you thought this was a chapter about bankruptcy?  More like a chapter about the lingering pain of slowly dying.  I mean walking.  Because I hate walking.  Really, really hate it.  That's why I sit around all day typing stories about people who will be eaten alive if they stop long enough to sit.

11 – The Morning Walk

                By morning, the entrails that had been strewn across the ground were gone.  The ground showed no signs of blood.  Aside from the protruding ribs, there was nothing to hint that the dragon had been injured.
                The girl held up a small compact, checking the folds of her hijab in the tiny mirror.  “Y’mohtun tah’t el’Shams,” she said.  They die under the sun.
                The worms – they died under the sun.  “Nematada,” she had called them the night before.  Was that Arabic for nematodes?  Or were they something else entirely?
                The girl finished with the folds of dark fabric around her face.  She folded the small the small mirror and slipped it into a hidden pocket lost to the folds of her abaya.  Brushing at flecks of unseen lint, she asked if he still believed they were on Earth.  “Tunthooru, in’nana fi el-Ard?”
                Jonathan stared down at the rough dragon hide beneath his feet.  He considered the bloodthirsty, invisible tendrils lying mere centimeters beneath the ground.  He stared at the palm of his hand – no marks remained from the nematada and their toxins, but his skin was red and blistered from where the girl had done her work with the lighter.  Even now, he was afraid to pull on his glove, thinking that some trace of the things was somehow trapped in the folds of the fabric, was somehow waiting for another taste of his skin.
                “Huhna leysa al’Ard,” he said, still not sure he believed it.  Here is not the Earth.
                The girl nodded, apparently satisfied.  Then she stood.  She pointed her arm to the east – or what he guessed was east, based on the sun’s steady morning climb.  Then she waved her arm in an arc, imitating the rise of the sun through noon and then the set to night.  “Andoona thimanya sah’at,” she said.  We have eight hours.
                “Wa bahda thalik?” he asked.  What then?
                The girl let out her breath.  He could tell she was tired of explaining things.  He had tried to pry answers from her the night before, but that had been because he couldn’t sleep.  He’d spent at least half the night sitting up against the dragon’s spiny back, cradling his arm to his chest, as she spent her night curled up in the crook where the thick muscles from the wings connected with the taught cords of the neck.  If not for his Gerber held tight in her hand, he would have guessed she was completely at ease.
                “Fi el’Layl,” she said, “yarja’oon Nematada.”  At night the nematada return.  She added on something else, but Jonathan didn’t catch the words.  Judging by her expression, it wasn’t good.  He tried asking her to repeat, but it was no use – she was already climbing down off the dragon’s wing.
                “Nemshee,” she said.  We walk.
                They started eastward.  She said it had something to do with the ocean – or was it the sea? – being to the east.  But her answers grew more and more curt as the day went on.  For the first few hours, Jonathan had trouble keeping up with her as she blazed a trail through the trees.  Mud, grass, prickly thorns – nothing seemed to slow her down.  Aside from the occasional pause to unhook herself from some clinging vine, she almost never stopped.  “Toilette,” she gave as the only explanation for the stop where she told him to stay put while she hid herself amongst a particularly thick patch of scrub.
                Jonathan shook his head.  By then, he was so tired and hungry that he didn’t care whether she was shy or not.  He ruefully told himself that he didn’t want to see her, that he wasn’t at all tempted by the sight of her, but he knew better.  He was lost, confused, and really, really tired of walking into trees with his machine gun.  Turning away from her, he walked a good ten paces further way from her, sidestepped to put another tree between the two of them, and then unbuttoned his fly.  Shoving the two-four nine to one side and holding up on the front of the body armor, he was somewhat able to relax enough to take a piss without getting himself splattered with urine.  Still, he could tell by the slow, almost painful golden stream that he was not drinking enough water.  Not enough by far.  He tried to forget the fact that he was hungry, too.  And how far had they gone?  Two miles?  Three?  Five?  They weren’t moving nearly fast enough – he could tell that himself.  The sun was already a third of the way through the day – it would be only another hour or two before it reached the top of the day.  And where would they be?  Still lost in the forest?  Still wondering where the hell they were?
                He buttoned up, and then leaned back against a low-hanging tree limb.  He left the rough bark take up some of the weight from his pack and the armor.  The machine gun he lowered until the ammo drum was propped up against his knee.  It was hard to believe, but he still had a full combat load – through everything, he hadn’t fired a single shot.  That left him with four drums of ammunition, minus a few bullets from that test fire they’d done yesterday before leaving base.  So he had what, seven hundred ninety-plus rounds of ammunition?  Yeah – enough ammo to take on a small battalion.  And now, wherever the hell they were, he had to carry it.
                He reached up to pull off his helmet.  Yeah, the helmet was doing him a lot of good right now.  Aside from trees and grass, the only living things they’d run across were those butterflies, a pair of randy squirrels, and a toad.  And sure, the toad had been as big around as a softball, and it had stood in the middle of their way without moving or blinking or otherwise showing that it might fear them – that was the most dangerous thing they’d seen all day.  If not for the nematada, Jonathan would have given this place a “zero” on the threat category.  And even those were easy enough to get away from – stay off the ground at night, and you’re good.
                Yeah, trying staying off the ground an entire night.  That would be fun, he was sure.  What would they do?  Prop themselves up against trees so that only the soles of their shoes touched the earth?  Or, better still, climb into the branches and hope they didn’t fall off?  Oh, yes, that would be fun – falling out of a tree, maybe breaking an arm, and then being eaten alive by carnivorous worms smaller than needles.
                He wasn’t looking forward to walking some more.  Actually, he wanted nothing more than to sit down and take all the weight off his feet.  It felt like his ankles were about to swell through his boots, he’d been standing for so long.  But he wasn’t about to sit.  Not unless he found a big rock, or maybe a tree stump.  Or a fallen log.  Yes – a nice, comfy log would have been perfect.  And it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen one all day.  Instead, it was just rows and rows of trees.  A new tree every twenty feet or  so, all laid out in a grid that was pretty much perfect, as far as he could tell.  Aside from the wide patches of mud intermingled among the scraggly bits of grass, he saw no sign of imperfection.  At least, not as far as the ground was concerned.
                Yeah, it was an orchard, all right.  Cared for, maintained – an orchard.  And that made him wonder about who owned the place.  And then he wondered if he could eat anything from the trees.  He hadn’t noticed any fruit before, and looking up at the trees now offered nothing new.  The sun filtered in through the gaps in the slender, ovoid leaves, and the gentle wind offered only the slightest rustle amongst the leaves.  An orchard without fruit – strange.  Maybe it was the off season.  Or maybe it was more like a Christmas tree orchard – except he somehow couldn’t imagine someone chopping down these trees for decoration.  Or even for lumber.  They were too gnarled, for one – they looked more like the old crabapple tree growing in front of his dad’s house back home, a sprawl of low-lying limbs with narrow leaves.
                These thoughts didn’t last long.  He heard the suction of a shoe pulling up from the mud, and he saw the slender black apparition of the Iraqi.  She seemed very serious, just then, as if she’d just eaten a lemon sour.  Seeing her that way just made him want to smile.  Not out of joy, but just to cheer her up.  He managed to put a little more energy into his voice, just for the sake of goodness.
                He leaned forward, putting his weight squarely over his feet.  “Waqt lil namshee?” he asked.  Time for our walking?
                If there was anything in Jonathan’s voice to bring good cheer, the girl showed no sign.  Instead she jabbed her finger at the tree, falling just short of touching it.  “Hatha Nematada,” she said.  That’s a nematada.
                Jonathan blinked.  He stared up at the leaves, at the bark, as the errant roots jutting up from the ground.  He couldn’t remember the Arabic word for tree.  “Hatha?”  That?
                “Nahm,” she said.  “Hatha.”  Yes.  That’s nematada.  Then she waved her arms in an expansive gesture, as if taking in the woods and the ground and the sky.  She said something about animals and birds – he caught the words “Hay’ya’wan” and “Ta’er.”  But then she pulled out his Gerber from her pocket, unfolded the narrow blade, and pointed up at one of the bare branches.  The narrow twig terminated in a knobby stub bereft of leaves.  “Ja’ya,” she said, jabbing at the bare branch.  Hungry.  “El’Nematadat hoona ja’ya jid’n.” The nematada here are very hungry.
                Jonathan swallowed.  This trip just got better and better.
                For a time he thought about how he might politely ask to get back her Gerber.  Later, he thought that maybe it was better she kept it.  It could be a kind of measure of trust, perhaps, or a reward for the fact that she had basically saved his life.  And he knew it was only a knife.  A good knife, sure – a Gerber, no less – but only a knife.  A glorified pocketknife.  And there were so many other things to worry about.  Finding out where they were, for example – though it was pretty clear she knew exactly where they were.  She may have pretended to be following the sun, but he knew better.  She stopped rarely, but he watched her every time she paused.  He had little choice, actually – her pace was so brisk he could barely keep up.  By the time he trudged up to see her examining the ground for some sign of a trail, she’d already be planting her feet for the next step.
                For a while, he thought she was simply in a hurry.  But as they kept moving further and further without any sign of roads or animals or even another break in the trees, he began to understand – the trees simply didn’t end.  The nematada trees and their roots – it was the roots that ate people, right? – didn’t end.  And the girl wasn’t as strong as he’d first thought.  As the sun rose higher and higher and then began its gradual sink to evening, she began to stumble.  Her sneakers – once marred only by the faint dust that covered everything in Iraq – were soon soaked gray by the constant tramping through deep mud.  As they tramped across a narrow creek, she tumbled headlong into the water.  She was up again a moment later, darting up out of the water, but not with the kind of energy he expected.  She was soaked pretty much from the waist down, but she didn’t have the energy to do anything about it.  So Jonathan slogged through after her, wishing there was some way to keep his boots dry.  But of course there wasn’t.  Just as there was nowhere safe to pause and rest.
                That was around the time he first began having lovely visions of fire – a forest fire.  A wondrous great forest fire.  The kind of fire that would have put California to shame.
                It would have been a great idea.  By the time the girl had paused long enough for him to explain it – employing all the Arabic and sign language at his disposal – the dream had taken on truly epic proportions in his mind.  He’d even thought about how he could have used the pliers on his Gerber to break open some of those eight hundred rounds of ammunition to get at the gunpowder inside.
                The girl – at the point leaning all her weight against the side of a nematada tree – shook her head.  She spat out some phrase that made no sense at all – not to Jonathan, it didn’t.  He wasn’t even convinced it was Arabic.  He almost asked if she had switched over to Farsi when he wasn’t looking.  But then she slowed her speech enough for him to make out the words “fire,” “pig,” and “idiot.”
                That pretty much ended the conversation.
                By the time they reached the end of the forest, the sun was so low in the sky behind them that they could barely see the difference.  One moment, they were in the crisp late-afternoon twilight that comes from walking among trees – cool shade punctuated with fingers of sunlight.  But then the perpetual shadow gave way to a shock of green across the ground.  They were at the edge of a wide prairie.  Tall grasses sprouted up at their feet.  By then, the girl could barely walk, she was limping so much.  And Jonathan could barely hold his head up.  Even with the waist strap from the assault pack looped in under his body armor to take some of the weight off his shoulders, he felt like his someone had stabbed an ice pick between his shoulder blades.  But he was, at least, still upright.  He was still walking.  He guessed it was the long, long hikes in Monterey, those days when he had loaded up a rucksack to march the five miles out to the Target.  Yeah, those had been good days – stopping for a shake at McDonalds, getting a burrito at the Turtle Bay Taqueria, wearing shorts and a t-shirt because that’s what he wore on his days off in California.  It felt like he had salamanders crawling under the plates of his body armor, he was now so soaked in sweat.
                The girl reacted first.  Favoring her left foot, she made her way out into the grass to where it was tallest.  Taking a quick look around, she abruptly sat.  A moment later she was lying down.  Jonathan started toward her before he remembered – it was the trees that ate people.  And now the trees were behind them.
                Still, he couldn’t relax.  Something didn’t feel right.  He found himself reluctant to step out from under the shade.  He ignored the burning itch that came with shifting the weight on his back and brought the two-four-nine forward.  At first, he thought they had reached a true field, but then he saw that it was only a clearing.  The grasses were thick and lush here, yes, but the grove of trees stretched around in a circle on all sides.
                He walked up to the girl.  Her eyes were closed in a moment of utter relaxation – they started open as his shadow crossed her face.
                “Ey-nu-na?” he asked.  “Where are we?”
                The girl shook her head.  “La arif,” she said.  “Man ye’tem?”  I don’t know.  Who cares?
                Who, indeed.  He couldn’t think of a good answer.  Did it matter?  Aside from the fact that he was very, very hungry and that they were still trapped, did it matter?  At least now they could lie down and sleep a few hours before walking on.
                He pulled off his assault pack and set it down on the grass beside her.  He really, really wanted to pull off his body armor, too, but he waited.  Yes, the feel of dry skin would have been great.  Especially if he could have pulled off his boots, too – the skin between his toes felt as though it was slough away the moment he pulled his socks off, it was so wet.
                The girl sat up while Jonathan was scanning the edges of the field for signs of danger.  She picked up his pack and gave it a weak throw.  It rolled a good six feet before crushing a small clearing of its own in the grass.
                “Anahm hunak!” she said, pointing out to the far edge of the field.  Sleep over there.
                Jonathan snickered.  “Shukron,” he said.  Thanks.

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