Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World
I’m picking up pieces: a piece of black fabric in the shape of a square, frayed at the ends and still warm; a chunk of rubber, also black, from the sole of a shoe, which smells like oil; a tuft of dark, black hair, singed on the ends and bent into a curl; a child’s finger, no bigger than a cigarette filter, stiff, yet pliable, like a worm to bait a fishing hook; a piece of skin, bloody on one side, rough on the other, and resembles a fleck of paint. I collect the pieces—the remains of the boy—into a small, plastic bag. I work fast. I must get the package to the boy’s father before he takes him away. Sometimes there’s no hurry. Sometimes no one is left alive to collect the injured. Sometimes they die before I can gather everything. The boy still breathes, and so I must hurry.
Behind me, my neighbors run in different directions, like ants that scramble when their mound is stepped upon. People run for shelter, for safety, to divert bullets, another missile, or because they don’t know what else to do.
The boy’s father lifts his son through a broken car window, close to where I work. The car is deformed; its metal framework melted and shapeless. Flames burn from the backseat. The boy’s hand is smeared with purple blood and his index finger is arched in a pointing position. Perhaps he had been pointing at something pretty, something amusing, something only a child could see, but had been cut down before he could share it. The boy’s body looks like a pile of rags in the arms of his desperate father. His arm swings as his father runs against the grain of people, and places him on the debris-laden ground.
The father appears calm as he rubs his boy’s chest, but his eyes shift around. He’s thinking. He is dissolving inside. I imagine he will have thoughts similar to ones that I’ve had on previous occasions.
What should I do with him? Where will I take him for help? Will I make it in time or will he die in my arms, my only son? Will another bomb explode? Will I get caught in the crossfire? Where’s my wife? Does she know to go home? Is she alive? Is she far from here? Does she know she will have to keep the others safe, while I’m tending to our son?
The boy’s father wraps the child’s dismembered hand with a discarded scarf he finds from the street. The cloth seeps with blood upon contact. The blood won’t stop. He searches for something bigger to tie off the wound, but he knows there’s internal damage, because of the way the boy’s body twists unnaturally. He starts to cry, feeling helpless.
I bring the bag to the father. He takes it from me with little thought. We don’t speak to one another. He knows I am there to help. Together, we lift the boy and carry him away.
Gunfire rattles behind the next building, causing more of my people to scurry like hunted game. The women scream through their tears, as their children fall under the rain of bullets. How many times have these mothers warned their children about days like this? Didn’t they ingrain in them how to avoid the bullets? Run low, toward the side of the building, hide, run, get away!
The father and I hide behind a building. We see soldiers spreading out into the square. Their green uniforms make them look like tall bushes attacking us. Their M-16’s scatter more bullets, more bodies fall. No one is spared, the young, the old, perhaps the lucky.
“Is he still alive?” I ask.
The boy’s father nods. I can see the boy’s breathing grow heavy, impaired. I’ve seen this before.
“He was always a good boy. He never…” the man covers his face with his hand. The wet tears clear away the dust from his skin. He never finishes his sentence, nor needs to. I know he wants to say his boy never caused him anger, and never wanted more than he could provide. My boy was just like his. He was about the same age when he was killed in a similar attack six months ago.
The man scoops his boy up in his arms and disappears down the street. The bag I collected for him is gripped in his hand. He doesn’t need to thank me. He will appreciate my efforts at a later time. I run in the opposite direction towards home. The gunfire still rages. A second missile explodes toward my left, like an ocean wave, for there is a brief silence before it hits, and then an unfathomable crash, that covers everything in its path.
I run in the direction of the attack, passing through the crowd with resistance. Faces I’ve known my whole life go by with terror. Their eyes look alien, unfeeling and scared. The missile destroyed a market this time. Arms and legs protrude from the rubble when I arrive. Men gather. Our eyes glance at one another, each hoping the other will move first, as if one of us already has a plan to lead us all to pull the bodies out. I move first, indicating I have the most experience. I yell for someone to help me lift the cement block from the top of the pile. Four hands are not enough. Two others join in, and we’re able to slide the block off the top of the mound.
“They may still be alive,” I shout. This gives the others hope, as they dig with their bare hands through rock, dirt, steel, and blood.
This was how I found my mother. First I found a torn fragment of her scarf covered in the dirt, a piece I keep tied around my wrist in remembrance. After I recovered the rest of the scarf, I found her arm. Upon pulling, the arm came free of her body. I dug quicker, harder, like a monster without emotion, not noticing that I was scraping the skin clean from my fingers. Her eyes were open, staring toward the blue sky, which never seems to change or notice what happens down here. Her body lay contorted in different directions like street signs perched at the corner of an intersection. I tore her body from the tomb, though it was not in my physical strength to do so. The body is as strong as the mind allows.
When the first cadaver is pulled free from the shopping center pit, we are encouraged to go further to find more, but then a child’s voice behind us breaks our concentration. We divert our energy to the definite living. Beneath the rubble, a boy has found a breathing space; he calls for his brother. Someone goes for him. The rest of us dig. Sweat pours down my face, as I work with the others to lift the stone and rubble, to free the boy. We all know with one wrong move, we could bury him.
The boy’s brother comes. Upon seeing his younger brother buried, he screams for Allah to do something, anything to keep him alive. His hands dig and lash at the gravel to reach him. “You’re not going to die! Do you hear me?” the brother says with strength. I used to pray to Allah, until I realized that he could not hear my prayers over the bombing and gunfire.
Gunfire cuts over our heads. We drop to our bellies. “Quickly,” someone says. “We must go,” shouts another man. Several escape over the mound.
“We can come back,” I say to the brother. “He’s safe where he is.”
The soldiers spot us. Though we lie grotesquely upon the ruins of the building, and the remains of life, with little left for them to take, but our lives, they come. A bullet grazes my head, as I pull the brother’s arm to leave. My head spins; my ears ring. More gunfire. The brother’s chest spurts blood when three bullets pass through his body. I roll to the other side of the debris pile, watching, as the brother’s brains spill out onto the cement stone like vomit, as the deadening bullet pierces his skull. I hear the boy screaming below. He is terrorized, no longer a boy, but a caged lion, crazed with fear.
Children take to the rooftop of a building on the other side of the street, and throw rocks down upon the soldiers, who return fire willingly. The boys are quick to hide, and their efforts give me enough time to get away.
Blood runs down my cheek. I keep wiping it, but it still flows. I am dizzy, but determined. After the soldiers leave, I return to the mound. New faces arrive to help clean the debris and dig for loved ones. I notice the boy doesn’t call out anymore. I remove a plastic bag from my pocket. I keep a few with me at all times. I can never tell when I might need one.
When my boy was killed in an attack, a month before my mother, his body lay in pieces on the gravel road. As his father I should’ve been able to pick him up and put him back together. I sat beside my dead son for what felt like an entire season, until someone stirred me, a man, who handed me a plastic bag with my son’s remains. Every piece is sacred, he said. He did this for me so I didn’t have to; it was the most loving act anyone has ever done for me. My son was my first loss, then my mother was taken, then my wife and three girls. My whole family has been slain during one attack or another. I have no one left, but my neighbors. They are what’s important now.
I don’t know if anyone would come for the two brothers. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they’re never claimed. I didn’t know if the boy was still alive, or if he would live. I half knew he was already dead—his silence confirming what I knew in my heart— but the hopeful side of me did not want to admit the truth. I bagged the soft, slick brain. Beside the body was a crushed flower. Its color purple stood out from the disaster. I put this into the bag too. I laid it on the brother’s chest and forced his eyes closed. I carried him to the end of the row of bodies already collecting in the street. I looked at the faces for anyone I might know, but I knew them all in one way or another.
I look for the first boy and his father, but I don’t see them anywhere. Maybe the boy lived, or maybe I already knew he was dead. He probably died in his father’s arms, just like mine did. The hopeful side of me wasn’t ready to admit anything with certainty. A missile soared overhead crashing in the plaza several blocks away. I ran against the grain to get there, a body in pieces, waiting. I took out another plastic bag and began picking up pieces.