Musa Qala

by Matthew Andrew

Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Andam stood in the shade of the tree line and stared at the enemy through the shimmer of the orange fire. He was close enough to feel the heat searing his face. The squad of policemen and three American Marines stood watching, ghostly mirages through the heat of the blaze. While Andam’s poppy field burned, the Marines smoked cigarettes. They each kept the finger of their free hand on the triggers of their rifles, slung across the front of their bodies.

Baseer held onto his father’s leg, arm wrapped tightly around the knee, head pressed against his thigh.

“Go fetch your sister and bring her inside to her mother,” said Andam, his eyes never leaving the men.

Baseer let go and ran away into the woods, his short legs pushing him around dry bushes and over ditches.

Andam stood watching the fiery image of the intruders as they walked down the path leading away from Andam’s farm. Every few steps, one of the Marines turned to look back at the pile of charred poppies. The Americans’ faces carved in stone. The Afghani policemen laughed amongst themselves and slapped each other on the shoulders. Andam knew the policemen—all corrupt and hiding their own illicit activities—and would deal with them eventually. It would not be as easy to rid his home of the Americans.

 

Andam pissed himself waiting for the enemy. His gray beard itched after two days of hiding. His warm trouser leg stuck to his thigh, and the air smelled of salty urine and sweat. He’d lain in the dust of the empty mud compound, Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle lying next to him on the ground. Andam’s elbows had rubbed raw through his sleeves, and red patches stained the ground where he propped himself up in the gravel, watching.

Eddies of dirt whipped over the tops of the hills. Between clouds of spiraling dust, a squad of Marines approached. Andam’s pulse thumped in his ears as he picked up the rifle. Pulling the rifle up to his shoulder, he ran his hand over the worn, wooden butt-stock. His grandfather’s blood had spilt on this same rifle many decades ago, turning one of the knots on the heel of the wood into a shape Andam always thought resembled a bloody eye.

He looped the sling around his right arm. It closed around the notch where bicep meets shoulder, tightening the butt-stock to his body for accurate firing. Weapon firmly in place, he froze to select a suitable target. Andam’s black turban absorbed most of the sweat pouring from his forehead and scalp.

The squad of thirteen men in desert camouflage uniforms patrolled the outer compounds and farms of the district. Their heads swiveled, scanning the area, eyes and weapons linked and ready to engage any target. Andam lowered his head to peek through the scope mounted on the rifle.

The crosshairs floated over the faces of the foreigners. The first soldier in the column, a round-faced man, cheeks flushed red from the heat, served as the point man of the squad. Another man chewed tobacco and spit a slick brown stream into the dirt.

Andam moved the sight across each face. One soldier looked directly at Andam as he scoured the surroundings with hawkish, squinted eyes.

He aimed the sight onto the face of the one who followed the squad with a holstered pistol and a small medical bag slung across his back. Andam remembered men with those bags running through an ocean of dead and dying, while his mother and other women had grabbed fistfuls of tan uniforms and begged for help.

The scope fell on the smooth, clean face of a dark skinned man. He wore a small black bar on his thick armored jacket and scanned the other soldiers, as well as the surrounding countryside. The soldier’s eyes were slightly slanted with bright whites and piercing pupils, eyes that looked like his father’s when he fought past occupiers.

Andam pulled the sling into his upper arm as tight as he could bear, jaw muscle pulsating as he bit down from the pain. Below the leather sling, his arm tingled from the constriction of leather. He leaned his head down and to the right and pressed his cheek onto the top of the butt-stock. The lines in the scope were perfectly still, resting between the eyes of the dark-skinned officer.

Andam recalled his father’s eyes, still bright when he lay in the dirt dying from a foreigner’s bullet many years ago. The wide, vacant eyes had stared at mother while she knelt in the dirt and wailed.

Andam wriggled to adjust his prone body in line with the rifle. The sights settled for the last time on the dark skinned officer’s unprotected forehead.

The officer wiped sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand and flicked it away with a snap of the wrist.

Andam took a slow, deep breath, exhaling it and holding his lungs empty to maximize his stability. The scope bounced a hair as his pulse fought the tightened sling over his bicep.

The young officer smiled, perfect white teeth flashing at a child who walked by the patrol.

Andam lowered the rifle, blood and feeling screaming back into his forearm, then hand. He dropped his forehead down onto the stock. After this death, some other foreign boy will just come back for more vengeance—a perpetual course, once it has begun. And when did it begin? With the tanks and bombs? Men on horseback with rifles? Invaders with swords and shields?

Andam lifted his head. The patrol continued past the compound. Andam sighted in again on the back of the last man’s head, just under the lip of the helmet. He squeezed the grip of the rifle until his palm cramped. His chin quivered. Andam pulled the trigger back until the involuntary twitch of his index finger, from his pulse radiating in to his arm, could fire the round.

The last Marine’s head disappeared below the line of the hill, a hill dotted with rocks and red flowers that obscured the next field to be burnt. Andam released his hand, the trigger, and his clenched jaw, and exhaled his firing breath. He lifted his head to gather his things and go home. Baseer would be waiting and wondering where he had gone for so long.

A tiny flash glinted from the barrel of a hidden American sniper. Andam’s right eye disappeared from the impact of the 7.62 mm round, while his brains evacuated through the back of his skull in a red mist. Blood spurted from the eye socket, then flowed around his nose and down his chin. His head remained upright from the surprise of the shot. The blood streamed from the tip of his chin onto the ground, mixing with the fine desert sand to form a viscous, black puddle, his grandfather’s long dried blood now obscured on the wooden stock.

After the first few splatters dropped from his face, his body realized the fatal blow. Andam’s face dropped into the dirt and blood.

 

“Father? Father?” called Baseer as he wandered between the abandoned compounds. The sun had set. Darkness filled the gaps between the empty mud huts.

“Father? Father?” said Baseer as he entered each hut and compound. Approaching the last one, he squeezed his small body through the space of a broken plywood door.

“Father?” asked Baseer as he walked up to a body, lying face down in the dirt. He asked again. “Father?”

Now, quieter this time, “Father?” while nudging the foot with his sandal.

Baseer took a few cautious steps to the head of the corpse. He crouched down, but didn’t touch the misshapen skull and blood-matted hair.

Baseer sat down and crossed his legs, staring at the dead man. A camel spider lurked into the room and backed itself into a corner. As the clouds cleared throughout the night, the moon cast a white glow onto his father’s body.

Baseer nodded off during his vigil, despite the pops of gunfire that echoed from all directions—some as close as the other side of the compound wall, some farther down into the valley. The firing was almost always followed by shouts in English or the familiar screams of his neighbors.

Baseer heard Pashtun whispers and the crunch of footsteps in gravel along the outside wall. The lurking fighters were unable to stifle the discharge of their rapid breathing. The racket of gunfire echoed into the empty hut. Baseer could distinguish the rapid, metallic clatter of the weapon’s bolt while it showered bullets into adjacent compounds. When the firing ended with an empty click, the slap of running sandaled feet disappeared into the distance. The heavy stomp of boots followed seconds behind. Baseer remained seated next to his father’s body while the sounds of battle surrounded him.

As the sun began its red ascent into the eastern sky, the nearby skirmishes had moved elsewhere, leaving the village silent.

The bottom half of the Mosin-Nagent lay lodged under Andam’s body. Baseer stood, grabbed the barrel, and pulled, but the rifle was firmly wedged under the corpse. Baseer leaned farther back and grunted, straining to break the rifle free. It began to inch loose from under the weight as he leaned back as far as he could. He jerked the barrel side-to-side, finally setting the rifle free and sending him back into the dirt from the momentum.

The little boy stood up, hefting the sling over his dusty, brown tunic, and wedged back out of the jammed door. As he walked home in the quiet night, the butt stock trailed behind him and carved a deep path in the dirt.

Matt Andrew is currently serving with the U.S. Marines and is on his second deployment to Afghanistan. His fiction has been published in Literary Orphans, Smokebox, Red Fez, and CC&D.