by Corby Anderson
“What is it?” asked Samir. Both of their heads were tilted upwards, watching the strange object buzz towards them.
“It’s a drone. Be still Sami,” replied Tariq. To Sam, his older brother looked much older than his twelve years when cast against the loam of the sideways sun. He was nearly a man. His beard was ready to grow.
The brothers watched the plane flying in high, banking turns around the valley. The white wings of the plane flashed brilliantly when it made a turn to the west. The mountains rose up in triumphant ridges, lining both sides of the Swat. The ridges seemed to hold the plane within their confines, like a silver fish unknowingly caught in deep net.
“Will they shoot it?” asked Samir.
“Shh. I don’t know. They may not want to give away their positions. Be still, I said.”
The older boy put his arm across the bony shoulders of his brother. The gesture calmed down Sam, and he barely noticed when Tariq put his scratchy palm across his mouth. The plane turned its wings hard towards the fading sun and started to make a long turn back towards the steep mountains that lay ahead of the young boys. They watched from behind a scrape of black rocks which sat above their father’s farm as the traffic below scattered from their pocked ribbon of dirt that paralleled the river.
Samir fidgeted, now aware of his brother’s hold on his mouth. He had more questions to ask, but Tariq’s grip was firm and insistent. “Sami, settle down. Listen to me. Do you want to get blown up by a missile?” said Tariq. His brother’s intense face had just enough fear etched across it that Sam decided to swallow his questions. He hoped that he would remember them later, and that Tariq would be amenable to answering them. They were good questions. The buzz that came from the engines on the place rattled around the walls of the canyon before them. It sounded like two rattlesnakes fighting over the fore and aft of a field mouse. Still, it was more peaceful sounding than the helicopters that came in waves from time to time. Tariq’s nerves could handle the uncertainty of a single plane much better than squadrons of the American copters and their gunship escorts.
Samir watched as the plane continued to curl in its pink-hued arc. It would be dark in minutes. There would be no bird for dinner tonight. The plane had stolen their hunt. Sam thought of the meal that his grandmother would be making down in the valley and his stomach began to groan with excitement. No bird, but it did not matter – she could cook a royal meal with no meat, no rice, no flour or spices. The magic of her cooking had sustained most of his young life.
The older brother wasn’t thinking of dinner. He was thinking of darkness. As soon as it was dark enough, he would tell Sami to run down the mountain, across the bridge, and to the house. The drone would still work in the dark, but he had heard that it could only see the flickering barrels of a night gun, not two dark-clad boys running in the shadows. He kept his arm around his brother, his hand still covering his mouth, but now only loosely. With his left hand he thumbed the trigger of the old Russian hunting rifle. Its stock was scratched and dented, its emaciated wood barely holding the old iron screws that kept the barrel attached.
The plane banked to the east now, heading upriver. “What is it looking for?” Tariq asked rhetorically under his breath. He scanned the road and could see no cars or bikes. The Taliban were around, but they would be in hiding deep in the cellars and caves if they heard the drone come into the valley. The sun continued to sink to their left, down river. In a dramatic display, it showed its very last tip in a fiery spot above Malaam Jabba Peak, where the ski resort once was. Samir thought of his grandmother. My, she would have loved to have a bird to roast tonight. He felt shamed for not being able to bring home the duck he had so boastfully promised her. Together, they had harvested a basket of eggplants and a large melon, and she had explained to Samir in salivating detail how she would prepare his duck alongside their bounty in the night’s meal.
The plane slowly buzzed down the valley, menacing the evening calm. Tariq watched intently, and pointed immediately when he saw the truck bolt across the road from the apple orchard towards the center of his village. Samir watched for a moment with his brother as the truck lurched along through the field. About halfway across the hay-lined double track, the truck seemed to get stuck. It shimmied back and forth for at least a minute. Its gears grinded loud enough for Tariq to hear that its driver did not understand the fineries of a manual transmission. Finally the men inside the truck jumped out. They tried rocking the truck back and forth, but the tires just spun freely against the fine river sand that lined the field. The drone swooped back once more, reversing course in a sweeping turn.
Tariq was sure by its attitude that the drone had seen the truck and it’s former occupants, who were now running in every direction away from the stuck vehicle. He watched with an increasing anxiety as one of the men ran in the direction of their home. He could see the man’s white turban bobbing quietly as he ran through the gardens that were just two blocks from their house.
“Why don’t they shoot it?” Samir asked. Tariq’s hand had fallen away completely now, and he forgot that he was being shushed. Tariq looked down at his little brother, surprised. “I don’t know. They can, I know that. Maybe they are cowards. Afraid to give up their positions. See?” he asked, now pointing down the road. “Those men are running. The drone sees them, but I don’t think that it will do anything unless one makes it to a house. I am nervous that this one directly ahead may run to our house. That is my worry.” he said.
Samir never thought much of the fighting and religious doctrine that seemed to overwhelm his village. He was one for play. When the sun rose he met it with a net. And when it went down, he resigned himself to the allowed indoor games with his siblings, and when they were made to retire, to the American stories that he had wiled away under his mat. Seeing the concern mounting on his brother’s angled brow, Samir decided to lighten things up. He knew one sure way to make his brother laugh. Both spent most of their day’s time making jokes about their unreasonably mean sister. However, on this day she had fallen ill, and the regular fare seemed inappropriate. Samir thought for a moment. He toed the pebbles that were gathered at his feet with the worn leather of his father’s old sandals. Quietly Samir slipped his right arm out of the sleeve of his shirt, keeping it inside next to his body and letting the sleeve flop loosely by his side. He watched Tariq for a moment, and then started to swing the loose sleeve at him. “Look at me,” he said with perfect comic intonation, “I’m an arm-ey of one!” His brother looked at him out of the corner of his eye with disdain. His glare warned that danger was still present, but Samir knew it had passed. Besides, they were just boys out tending to their flocks. The Americans knew what to shoot at. Their bullets were expensive. They were smart, he had heard, and they only worked on the Taliban, who were not from his town anyways. Most of them were jerks and arrogant and ripe with hatred. He swatted at his brother a few more times with his empty sleeve, and then put his hidden hand up into his armpit. The year prior, when school still met, he had learned from a boy during a quiet moment of outside study how to make a beat-box noise, like that on a hip-hop song, with his underarm.
Starting softly, Samir began to chant the lyrics to a favorite shepherding song. As he reached the first chorus, he began to drive his elbow back and forth with varying degrees of vigor. He kept his little hand cupped against the joint underneath his shoulder, and pushed air through the openings of his fingers. The result was a rambunctious aural display of pops, poots, squirts, and deep, bassy blorts. The young boy gathered steam, creating a steady beat of underarm rhythms timed perfectly to his mocking lyrical tone. His soft, blue eyes focused directly on the almost identical pair that belonged to his nervous brother, and laughing now between almost ever word, Sam imitated their sister Mela, she of the shrill screech of a dying parrot – and doing a fine job of it, with backing music to boot.
Irritated at first, Tariq could not help but fall prey to his brother’s comic talents. His face had been like a dam, smooth and unflinching. Now, with each new line of the old familiar song, with each farting noise of accompaniment, cracks began to form in his stern visage. Small cracks led to the formation of larger seams along his sharp cheeks, then entire folds of skin were laid back in a rippling grin. Soon he was laughing in uncontrolled snorts alongside Samir, pitifully singing along. He is so talented, he thought, this brother of his. But so young and foolish, he thought too. God help him, he thought finally, for he makes me laugh so much. Samir ended the song in an arm-pumping flourish and the two sat laughing from the gut, trying to stifle their noise by both burying their faces in their chests. Tariq did this first, and Sam watched him, as always, and then copied his brother, as he did most always.
Tariq gradually composed himself. His cautionary tone returned with renewed urgency. “Sami, you have to promise me that you will stop singing like that. Do you want them to find out? Do you not recall what they did to Jola and his horn?”
Samir thought for a minute. Before they conscripted him, the Taliban had poured candle wax into his older cousin’s ears, and ran over his prized French horn with the tires of their trucks. It had all been a big show, out in the open for everyone and God to see. “No.”
“Then you must stop.”
Samir considered his brothers warning, looked him squarely in the eyes, and said sincerely that he promised. He offered out his arm to shake on his promise, and when Tariq took it, Samir jerked his right arm forward, bleating out one last sharp underarm fart. This earned him a hard wallop to the back of the neck and a hushed string of choice words from his brother, but Samir thought that the timing was unavoidably perfect, and that it was worth it. After a moment of squabble, they both turned their attention back to the valley below and the plane that was hunting along its banks.
After a few minutes, Samir could see that the men from the truck had all separated and were making their way into the village. “Riq, I am ready to go down the mountain. The plane is not going to shoot a single man,” offered Samir, breaking the silence. “Its bullets are too expensive for that.” His stomach now quaked with hunger. He was thinking of the eggplant that he had watched his grandmother pull from the garden early that morning. Its skin was a perfect purple hue, like shiny velvet. The squash was so ripe that it smelled good enough to eat raw, without the curry. He imagined it cubed and steaming on a bowl, with her famous sauce for dipping filling the bowl that he had made her from a tortoise shell.
“Maybe, but two people?” Tariq asked.
“Well they are all going in different directions. Two will not go to the same house. They have houses everywhere. There is no need to bunch up,” reasoned Samir.
Tariq turned towards his brother. His face was red with irritation. “Well what about our grandmother? What if they run in on her? Is that not two people? Are we not two people? Sometimes you don’t think at all, Sami. Have you already forgotten Mustafa? Jedah? You will get killed like them if you don’t start to think better about things such as these,” scolded Tariq.
The plane flew quickly above over the abandoned truck, this time much lower than any of its previous passes through the valley.
“I wish they would just shoot it,” said Samir. “It is a stupid plane.”
Tariq settled back against the rocks. He tapped the barrel of his rifle lightly against a pile of volcanic rocks in front of him. He was quiet for a few minutes, and then he started to smile a bit. Sam watched his brother’s face now. Still he heard the buzzing of the thing, but it seemed to be down towards Malaam Jabba once again. “Maqmoud told me that they know how to see what it sees,” he said finally.
“How do they do that?” asked Samir.
“I don’t know. It is a computer. They have a code.”
“A code? Really?” Samir smiled. Other than soccer, or his family, the only thing in the world that Sam loved as much was a computer. There were two – one called Dell, and a To-shiba in his school, and whenever he had the chance to use them he would sit transfixed by the array of electronics. His mind ached to understand the machines His teacher had teased him for kissing the screen of the monitor the last time that he had been allowed on the machine, but he didn’t care. He loved it almost the same as he loved his own brother.
“Yes. They say an engineer figured out the frequencies that the planes broadcast the pictures with. They can look into the camera that is onboard and see what the robot camera sees. Maqmoud says that soon they will be able to take control of the planes and crash them into the rocks,” Tariq said. The drone echoed lightly. It was now out of sight. Tariq studied the mountain below and stood up to walk the two miles back to their house.
Samir sat staring at the rocks where they had sat in hiding. An expression of giddy excitement was cast on his brown face. “Riq! I hope they smash one! I want to see its computer. I want to learn how to make a plane like this one.”
“Don’t be silly. You cannot make one of those planes. Especially if they smash it. Where do you get these silly ideas? Are you sure that your father is Houshman Krita?”
Samir looked up at his brother disappointedly. He thought that his idea was a good one. He thought that Riq just liked to make fun of him because his own ideas were not as modern.
“Come on little goat. Lets go. It is almost too dark to see our way down.”
The path down from the high steppes where the flock normally waters for the night is treacherously steep and littered with sharp rocks. Old men don’t use the trail anymore. They say that it is too dangerous. Only young boys moving herds or fighting men used the trail. The bright grey granite was perfectly mixed, as if in some enormous ice cream blender, with the course black basalt rock. Small cactus and dead looking wire brush filled every crack in the rocks, and where there was room for a mound of dirt, sweet sage sprouted up. Peppering the hills along the trail are bright green cedars – their branches straight like the arms of a straw man. Occasionally an old, weathered pinon pine snaked its way grotesquely towards the sky from the fertile soil. But those were mostly gone now. The people needed their heat more than their beauty.
The brothers made their way down the hill slowly. Tariq shouldered his bird gun, and Samir carried their rucksacks, but wished that he could carry the gun. His mind was alternating between visions of his grandmothers cooking and the computer that sat waiting for his attention at school. He could not wait for school to reopen. It had been too long. He enjoyed moving the sheep and goats. But more than work, Samir looked forward to those days of hunting and the football games; the days spent staring at cloud heads and rainbows. And even more than the freedom of the open air, Sam loved the learning of languages and math and music and laboratory and computers – it was what made him wake up running. He missed his classmates and his teachers.
Tariq did not miss school at all. Since the soldiers had made it off limits, he had taken over Jalil’s herd in addition to his own, and after a summer of learning to move and protect twice the head, he had grown proficient at the job, and was proud of the responsibility of it. And Tariq liked much better the new religious studies that had taken their old schools place. They made more sense to him. He felt empowered by the teachings of his elders, connected much more so to the teachings of the prophet than the unprovable lessons of the old textbooks and the young teachers who used to push them on him.
As they walked Samir could hear the buzzing of the plane off in the distance. Occasionally it sounded like it sputtered and was going to crash. He held his breath each time, thinking what bounty it would be to bring back to Maqmoud and his friends the computer that lives inside it’s nose. Tariq listened for the sounds of town as they descended further and further down the steep ravine. It was very quiet in town. Not a single car moved. Everyone was still staying hidden from the roving plane. It was still dusk, and thought the sun was down there was enough light to see clearly for another 15 minutes.
Tariq walked ahead of Samir. The younger brother watched as the sling on Tariq’s rifle slid off of his shoulder with every other step. His arm was too tired to hold the gun, he thought. It had been a very long day, and together they had walked many miles since the dawn prayers. More than most days, and most days saw them go twice around their world, it seemed to Samir.
Tariq felt sluggish and weak. The hill was so steep. Downhill seemed to take more out of him than uphill had. His nerves had been pierced by the plane. When his brother tapped lightly on his shoulder, he turned slowly to see what he wanted. Samir motioned to Tariq that he would shoulder the rifle with a loving smile. Tariq let the rifle slide down his arm. He had to dip slightly to let the gun slip over the knobby protrusion of bone that was his left shoulder. Sam gingerly held the frayed old nylon strap and considered the gun. It was a Russian single-shot rifle with a bolt lever – originally for military use, converted to a sporting gun long before. The name Mosin-Nagent was etched in Russian letters into the rusting steel barrel. Their father had hunted game with the rifle before handing it down to Tariq four years prior. The rotting barrel was nearly ringed with crude hash marks. It had come to their family almost encircled by these marks, and they had simply continued to add to it. Tariq had a feeling that not all of the marks had been made after shooting a pig or duck, and he recalls easily the strange ecstasy of carving his first notch on the stock, when he was only eight. The knife was covered in the steaming blood of a young deer taken in the early winter. His hand had shaken so.
Samir thought about hanging the rifle over his chest, perpendicular to his body, which was a much easier was to carry a gun with such length as the Russian. He thought better of that idea when he looked at the sky. The day’s sun was dead to its world, but in its wake it had left a vibrant, bloody swath that was pooling out over the entire valley. The sky vibrated in electric hues. The display energized the clouds, which in turn began to rumble to life.
Though the night was beating back the day, it was not too late to see their prey silhouetted against the breaking sky.This much light left in the day made it possible to see the birds if the brothers were to come across any who were fishing in the marsh below. He kept the gun on his shoulder in case they did.
As Tariq and Samir picked their way down the darkened path – Tariq always in front, the air began to fill with the resounding din of chattering insects. Down out of the drainage and now on the lower flanks of the exposed ridge that swept down like a ramp from the mountain above, the brothers could see the grove of trees where the truck had been abandoned. Through the thickening chorus of cicada, Tariq thought that he could still hear the Toyota’s engine idling. Sam watched the marsh and thought of his grandmothers cooking. He knew his ill-mannered, ill-in-general sister would chide them for coming home without protein for the curry. With her, there was no trick to calm her or deflect her ire. She was a force of nature unto herself, impervious and wicked. Were she ever to marry, both her brothers would both dance for joy and weep for the fate of their new brother.
A movement below them stopped Tariq in mid-step at the crux of a switchback. Below, at the base of the hill that they were descending, a tall man stood up and looked over his shoulder at the brothers. In the dim light, Tariq could see the sleek tip of a grenade and its long launch tube cast in black against the reflected sunset that had overwhelmed the marsh. The man stood for a moment studying the brothers above him, seemed to motion in some indecipherable way, and then took off in a half crouching run. When he reached the edge of the water, another figure appeared behind him, and then another. Each had the minarets of war slung over their shoulders. Tariq held his arm out against Sam’s chest, physically stopping his progress downhill. “Soldiers. Be still,” he said briskly. The sound of the awakening locusts nearly drowned out all sound now. The buzz was omnipresent, the orchestra whipped into a frenzied pitch.
One of the fleeing men broke off from the other two who took a route that skirted around the edge of the marsh. The third man went a more direct route, aiming directly for Tariq and Samir’s fathers house, which stood set back, fronting a pasture that separated it from a group of other houses. In doing so, he committed to sloshing through a hundred meters of knee-deep water. The going was more difficult, but his route was quicker by half, and ran him under the relative cover of some scattered marsh cedars.
“Is he going to our house?” asked Sam.
“I think so. Do you hear anything?”
Samir listened. “No, just these stupid bugs.”
“I think that the plane is back,” said Tariq.
“No. I don’t. It is just the bugs. The men are coming out now that it is dark.”
“Well, walk fast. I hope that man is gone when we get there.”
The soldier splashed through the center of the pond, creating a small red wake in his path. He moved quickly and directly, and as he neared the other side of the marsh he hit dry ground in full stride, running right through a clutch of large whooper swans, who flailed their wings and danced in sudden panic at the mans intrusion. The long necks of the birds craned and bobbed in unison as the fighter tore through their ranks, kicking at their blockade of white wings as he ran. Tariq watched as first one swan, and then another ran after the soldier in furious charges. He saw too when the man leapt over the back of one of the birds and tripped on its neck when it swung around to peck him, landing on another bird in a rolling heap of dark fabric and bright feathers. The commotion sparked a movement. All at once, the flock, minus one, ran into the water, stepped high on its surface with their webbed feel, and then together rose up on the strength of their powerful wings.
The swans exploded out of the marsh and climbed quickly towards the hillside before them. Their wings pounded the air. Both Tariq and Samir could hear this sound very clearly above the now raging song of the cicada. Tariq watched the man struggle to stand up on the banks of the marsh. The remaining swan appeared entangled in the strap of his rocket and was giving him fits.
Samir followed the flight of the swans, his eyes locking onto their beautiful wings, now drenched orange and purple, pink and red by the strange hues of the last light, which was transmitted downward, echoed from the reflective clouds that were steaming above. Instinctually, Samir slid the rifle off of his shoulder, fumbled with the safety briefly, but quickly overcame the lever and rose the barrel to the murky sky where the birds would be making their pass within just a few heartbeats.
Just downhill from Samir, Tariq was biting his forearm. doubled over with muted laughter at the antics of the man who appeared to be losing an embittered wrestling match with the incensed swan. The swan was on top of the soldier now, pecking at his head, tearing off his burqa, pulling huge chunks of hair from his beard. The man could do nothing but fend off the swan as he desperately grasped for his knife from its sheath below him. Tariq laughed and laughed. He had never seen a funnier sight. After a moment, he thought it a bit strange that Sam was not pounding heartily on his back in agreement, since he was one to never miss a chance to make fun of someone. The roar of the cicadas thickened impossibly, drowning out all sound. Tariq turned back uphill to point out the incredible scene to his oblivious younger brother. Of all people, his brother Sami the Senseless would die to see such humor.
Samir steadied the long barrel as he lifted it to the sky. Excitement coursed through his small body. Adrenaline fired through him like a string of a hundred spark plugs. In his excitement, he forgot to snug the butt of the gun into his underarm. Instead, Sam held the gun directly out in front of his face, a position that offered him a direct line of sight down the barrel. He watched through the sight as the nine swans climbed into view. He would have a bird for grandmother’s curry after all, and not just a common duck, but a bird fit for kings!
As the lead swan rose up on the thermals suddenly, it raced out ahead of Samir’s sight. Samir gave up on tracking it, and drifted the barrel back towards the larger group of birds that trailed the lead. One by one, Samir danced his sight from bird to bird. Time seemed to stop just long enough for Samir to choose his prey from the flock. He did not hear Tariq yelling, though it was at the top of his normally restrained voice, nor did he feel Tariq’s desperate tugs upon his the thin blouse of his hand-me-down shirt sleeve, though his older brother yanked with all of his twelve-year-old might.
The hunter saw only birds flocking across his sights in a sustained, slow climb. He counted again with the tip of the rifle. One, but that one is gone already. Two – smaller. Three and four are smaller still. Five was out on the wing, further away than the rest. Six was a nice hen, a fat mother. Samir liked the looks of the sixth bird. But to be sure he checked the rest. Seven and eight were smaller than six and further out on the fringes, and the ninth looked to be gaining speed, separating from the flock, too fast for Sam’s liking. He started to settle back towards the middle, where the largest bird flew, when he saw out of the corner of his eye a much larger bird rising out of the marsh, moving far quicker than the rest.
Keeping one eye on the fat hen, he glanced back to his right where the monster was racing towards its flock. He turned to swing the barrel towards this new bird and nearly ran right into his older brother Tariq, who was running frantically past him. The noise was incredible. The air turned violent. The birds banked away in instinctive group fright, flying suddenly to the east. All but one.
© Seven Bear Press 2012