Friday, December 10, 2010

The Child #fridayflash


The desert was pitch-black.

The Muslim call to prayer rang out across the Baluchi Valley, punctuating the silence with staccato bursts.

The dogs began to bark.

I struggled blindly through cool sand, thick around my ankles, dragging at my regulation boots.

As I followed the soldier in front of me, I fought against the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm me. The lead soldiers were obviously a lot fitter than I, a newly-arrived recruit. My knees were screaming, my thighs were burning, my lungs were on fire and my head was thumping with the headache from hell.

And that is what I called this place – hell.

I was in another world, a world where nothing was as it appeared.

Who was friend?

Who was foe?

I was on covert foot patrol with Australian and Afghan soldiers.  We were outside the wire. We scaled rocky hills under the pressing weight of body armour and supplies. I hadn’t yet acclimatised to the blistering temperatures and the altitude was an unwelcome foe. Everyone except me had been here long enough to master the elements.

I tripped and fell onto my knees in the darkness.

No one stopped and waited. We were on patrol. To stop was to jeopardise the mission. I dragged myself to my feet. No princesses here! In uniform everyone is treated the same.

I prayed for sunrise to come.

The line paused.

The lead soldier signalled with his crooked finger, pointing to our surroundings. The desert was revealing Kuchi camps where the Bedouins lived.

He held his finger to his lips.

We moved again, silently into the night.

We crept around huge borewater holes, but we couldn’t see anyone guarding the precious substance.

A police checkpoint was just ahead. We had nothing to hide but these checkpoints could be tricky I’d been told. Best to avoid them if possible.

No one breathed as we crouched and duck-walked close to the ground, swinging our weapons from side to side, holding tight.

Then it happened, the situation we’d been dreading.

We heard a screech, then a huge spotlight shone down on us, bathing us in blinding white light.

Someone screamed ‘drescht!’ and we froze like a herd of startled deer, clutching weapons to our chests.

Two police yelled at us. I didn’t understand the language but there was no doubt what they wanted. They motioned for us to stand where we were. We stood statue still and identified ourselves. We knew we could be shot right where we stood.

Someone, I’m not sure who, yelled ‘Australians!’ The police muttered to each other, nodded their heads, then allowed us to move on.

We were heading further into the desert.

‘They were skittish because just yesterday they confronted insurgents in Kakarak across the river. Shots were exchanged,’ whispered the soldier behind me. ‘Thanks,’ I whispered back, but strangely I didn’t feel any better. Now my eyes were seeing insurgents behind the rocks, across the river, into the hills.

I was weak with the terror with what had happened. It had been my first taste of danger. I lurched forward. My legs would no longer hold me up. I couldn’t kneel because my knees were screaming from the earlier assault, so I fell out of line and sat down in a dry gully and sucked air.

I was back on my feet in moments, terrified of being left behind in this unfriendly terrain.

Sunrise at last.

The sun broke through the mountains into the valley and lit up the shock of green land we were heading towards, the green belt.

It seemed we’d been marching for hours.

I saw a small boy, no more than four years old, shepherding his family’s goats through the green fields, while other children hid shyly in the doorway of their simple rammed-earth homes. They looked suspicious of us as we filed past.

Watching. Watching.

Our patrol met with some local elders, sussing out the lay of the land.

The elders were very guarded, constantly looking to see who was watching them talking to Australian soldiers. We knew they risked death just for having a conversation with us so we kept it short.

We moved on.

Over walls and through aqueducts we waded towards the village of Sorkh Morghab where coalition forces have built a school, market and medical centre. Yet I’d been told it was a hostile village. To be careful.

We wandered, apparently casually, weapons held across our chests, through the market area, where men and young boys showed us their shops and tried to sell me a burqa. I was just a woman to them after all, one who needed to cover herself, never a soldier.

One little boy was approaching me with an outstretched hand. He was about six years old but when I looked into his eyes I saw a man, an angry man. I shivered and felt a soldier pulling me back.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out two lollies to give to the child.

He smiled a toothy smile but it didn’t reach his old man eyes.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a large apple. We smiled at each other in what was a very easy but powerful gesture. No words needed.

I saw the apple had gone black with age and looked rough and mouldy. It looked like a…it couldn’t be…

‘Nooooooooooo…’ someone yelled, a voice full of pain and regret.

I felt the fire on my lips, the fire in my belly.

I tasted the fire as it burned in my throat.

I heard the voices and the staccato bursts of gunfire.

I heard the cry of a child.

Then I heard no more.




Julio Ricardo Varela said...

I love that you just tell the story. And thank you for your kind words as well.

Joanna St. James said...

oh my world! this was intense I squinted at my screen as if that would pull me out of the story.
Is it what I think it was a hand grenade?

Anonymous said...

I felt the fire on my finger tips for reading it over and over great storie

L'Aussie said...

Julio: Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it!

Joanna: Yep, a hand grenade. This is a mainly true story.

Johncunknown: Glad you felt the fire!

Anonymous said...

This is amazing. Your descriptions are wonderful, rich yet simple. I was with her every painful step of the way.

I wish there were no such situations that demand us to write of them.

Very powerful story.

John Wiswell said...

Unusual story for you, at least from what I've seen on previous visits. I guess war does interest us all, even if only sanguinely...

What does "drescht" mean?

Ruchiraa said...

Very powerfully told.

L'Aussie said...

Gracie: Thanks for your positive comments. Yes, I wish there were no such situations too.

John: I like to experiment and wanted to try a war story, but from a female perspective. Dresch comes from the German 'to flail' so when an Afghan uses it in this situation it means 'stop or I shoot' basically.

Ruchiraa: Thank you. I'll visit.

Stephen said...

A sad story--sad in its conclusion and sad in the truth. Still, it's a powerful reminder of what the soldiers face. A good story indeed.

L'Aussie said...

Stephen. Thank you. Yes, I agree.

Steve Green said...

The harsh realities of conflict powerfully told. Sadly children are often front line fighters too.

Deanna Schrayer said...

Denise, the pace of this is absolutely dead-on perfect. I didn't realize until the very end that I was holding my breath. Simply astounding storytelling!

L'Aussie said...

Steve: Yes, they certainly are.

Deanna: This is high praise indeed from such a wonderful writer!

Lara Dunning said...

Very compelling story. Brought you right next to her as she trudged through the desert sand and came to terms with her fear and duty. Loved the line "I was just a woman to them after all." It really reinforced cultural differences and what the essence of this war really is boiling down to. Thanks for sharing this flash!

L'Aussie said...

Lara, thanks for reading my story. I'm glad you felt it from her side of the story.

Rebecca Emin said...

Wow, this is such a strong piece. I loved your main character, I could see everything through her eyes.

Very sad that the child was obviously brainwashed to basically be used as a weapon. Even more so as you say it's mainly a true story.

I am glad I didn't miss this one.

L'Aussie said...

Rebecca, I'm so glad you read it and great comment. In the true story she doesn't die...

George said...

Impact -reality you can feel and guts to give. Portrayed for its ugliness you painted a great picture.