Editor’s Note: Ten years ago today, then-President George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would invade Iraq under false pretenses, suggesting that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9-11 tragedy and hiding “weapons of mass destruction.” Earlier today, a series of bomb blasts killed at least 56 people in Baghdad. For this 10th anniversary of one criminal war founded on another, we offer this short story set in Afghanistan. — Amanda
by Evan Sommers
Water’s been scarce, ever since they destroyed the well. The rubble still sits in an ugly heap near the village center. The thirst makes the Ghasu Khel bicker and snap at each other and say unkind things, but thirst will do that. The Ghasu are not unkind.
Ahmad doesn’t ride too fast; his horse will need to drink, too, and all of his thoughts, he’s careful to remind himself, must be directed toward finding water. Finding as much water as possible. The Ghasu are thirsty. The valley is drier than it used to be.
Some of the older ones will whisper that the dryness has something to do with the empire, with the grip it’s been exerting over the land, over stone and root, alike. Its sentries are constant, making small silhouettes against the grand sweep of Korangal cloud-forms and pale sky. They stand on faraway crags of mountain, surveying the valley from under the domes of their helmets. Looking out for anything they might need to destroy.
Ahmad wonders, sometimes, if they know how to do anything other than destroy. But such questions are not useful. Not as useful as horseshoes or sheepskins. His horse is white. There are no other white horses in the valley, nor have there been for at least a dozen years. His horse is special; his uncle named it Ghazi. His uncle sometimes takes Ghazi out at night. His uncle is one of them — one of the ones who fights the empire and makes friends of shadows. One of the ones with his suffering clearly on his face, centered somewhere in between his eyes and above his nose.
Ahmad hears water, then. A wave of something good — like exhilaration, joy — passes through him. He follows the sound, and amongst a scattering of pebbles, he finds a trickle. It’s almost a stream. And it looks clear, too. He dismounts and crouches down in the dust and stones. Sun is high overhead; not many clouds for steel birds to hide behind.
He takes a handful of the water and brings it to his mouth. It is cool — God, it is good. It tastes as tasteless and as invigorating as life itself. Life, washing down a brittle, dry throat. Life, un-parching sand-and-paper insides. Again his blood is flowing. Ahmad cannot help but smile. They will be happy for this — his uncle, his parents and brothers and sisters, and all the others. This will make them happy. He drinks more, and he gestures for Ghazi to drink, as well. It’s important that he and Ghazi drink their fill now so they won’t be thirsty later, and deprive the others.
He takes the first sheepskin and begins to fill it. As his hands settle beneath the cool, rippling face of the stream, he lets his gaze wander. He squints up, toward the Sun and the sky, again. Here it is, he thinks, sighing deep, here’s all of it; here’s the whole breadth of it: the criers, the laughers, the deciders, the whisperers, they’re all thirsty, so you go and find them some water — and they will love you all the more for it, even though you don’t need them to — and then out there by the water, the Sun and clouds and sky and trees, the dirt and rocks even, it all becomes beautiful for you. So much so, that the thirst suddenly becomes less important than the beauty.
And with this, desperation flutters off like a blackbird in search of a darker part of night. And something else, something far more peaceful soon alights on your shoulder to take its place. Ahmad finds himself smiling even more broadly. He feels the smile travel from his face, inward. He feels its warmth. He has filled both sheepskins, now, and he loads them onto Ghazi’s strong back.
He feels the bulging of his belly — Ghazi must be full of water, too — but they each take another gulp, anyway. Then man mounts horse, and they begin back toward Bibiyal, where the thirsty Ghasu wait.
The smile does not leave Ahmad’s lips. Not even when the steel bird is suddenly glinting from far above, suddenly emerging from behind clouds, from thick, obscuring whorls of atmosphere. It twinkles like a star — like a star where a star does not belong. It doesn’t worry Ahmad, though. The empire flies the steel birds all the time just to scare the villagers.
White smoke streaks from the bird’s breast in a long line, like God reaching a finger down to touch rich, Korangal soil. Ahmad does not notice. It is actually very quiet, very peaceful. Just Ahmad and the sunlight and the earth and Ghazi, trotting. And then the smoke-streak — Ahmad’s uncle had said he’d overheard the empire’s sentries call it a hellfire missile — comes near. It comes on so fast that Ahmad does not even have time to throw the sheepskins, to save the water, before it strikes.
This story came to Planet Waves via Fe Bongolan and astrologer Nancy Sommers; Evan is Nancy’s son.