Author: Joseph Thayer
Location: New Jersey
After escaping from a childhood in Brooklyn, Joseph Thayer joined a traveling circus, which eventually decided to pitch a giant tent in the hills of north Jersey. Joseph Thayer lives and writes. He loves his family; he hates war.
There was an uneasy feeling among the group that formed on the outskirts of town. Desperation in the eyes of some gave hope to the hearts of others, and they clung together as if no other safety had ever existed. Soldiers searched their tents, moving swiftly in and out. “Men up, men up,” the Soldiers shouted as they entered the makeshift homes.
The women screamed and spat on the floor as their husbands walked slowly from their tents. The men stood in line along the dusty path staring at machine gun barrels and acting unafraid. After the search found nothing, the soldiers were ordered to regroup and take with them any man able-bodied enough to cause trouble.
“Move along, move along.” A loud speaker clicked off, but the group was slow to disperse as most of them had already settled in. Fire ditches were dug from the desert floor and long poles hung soup pots just above the pit. Thin tunnels carved in the ground allowed air to feed the fire.
Along the road, the soldiers walked in a long single file. A little boy stepped alongside them, trying to mimic their march. One of the soldiers moved out of the line to show him how to lift his feet properly and get a good stomp. Afif grinned. He and his older brother, Amal, were given the task of finding anything that could burn. Their mother hoped it would keep them busy and away from danger. The soldier reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a plastic straw.
“Do you know how to shoot spit balls?” He asked. “First thing you gotta do is wet the paper.” Afif stared up at him with bright, round eyes. The man knelt on one knee and whispered, “You don’t understand a word I say. Do you?”
The heat was unbearable as the soldier put the tiny paper ball into his mouth and, with wild lip movements, got it good and wet. This time Afif laughed out loud. The sound put the man in mind of his own son, and he forgot the long miles between them. He no longer wanted to move their settlement up the road or set up perimeters to monitor traffic. He wanted only to make the boy laugh, to hear the clear laughter and pretend it was of his own blood, in his own land.
“Now,” said the soldier with renewed excitement. Then he swiftly blew through the straw and the ball spun tightly past Afif’s head.
“You’re dead,” the soldier called out.
Afif rolled back on his heels and bounced as if he were hit. Then he crumbled to the ground, holding his stomach in a fit of laughter.
“You try,” the soldier told him, sliding his helmet onto the boy’s tiny head and handing him the straw.
His first shot crashed into Amal’s ear. “You’re dead,” Afif called. He was a natural.
Afif launched two more balls before their mother came quickly from the crowd and knocked the helmet off his head. The soldier took the helmet from the dusty floor and told the woman, “Move along, Move along.” Mother and child disappeared into the crowd, with Afif holding to the straw like a samurai would hold his sword.
“Afif,” the older boy screamed to his brother, ducking instinctively from a wad of spit covered paper. Sweat poured off Amal’s head as he whipped it back to find Afif giggling and stuffing the straw into his belt loop. They laughed and walked over a sandy ridge. Then they came upon some mangled desks, scattered around a blackened crater. A green chalk board lay broken among the pages of old text books. The roof of the classroom was in pieces among the desks and no longer blocked the ravishing midday-sun. Three of four walls crumbled each time Amal crashed his foot through one of the desks. He was trying to get a piece of wood small enough to carry back and show the older men of the group. Later he would lead them up the ridge to fetch the firewood. Afif spit two more wads past his brother’s head. The spitballs crashed into the chalkboard and stuck there. “You’re dead, Amal. You’re dead.”
Their group had become so accustomed to roaming and being pushed from one settlement to another that they were very good at it. It appeared to the two boys, who now made their way over the ridge, that life had always been like this. They thought their people were a nomadic people, when in truth they had lived on this land for a thousand years.
Over the loudspeaker came another call. The voice rang out clearly, “move along, move along.” The speaker clanked shut and there was silence again.
The soldier prepared a shell and typed out the coordinates. He knew it was a warning shot, but still his hands quivered. When the order came down, he steadied himself and let it go. It would be well out past the camp, just before the ridge.
Afif was hysterical with laughter again. He had caught Amal in the eye and was laughing so hard he could no longer utter, ‘you’re dead’. Amal walked down off the ridge with a slat of wood tucked tightly under his arm. It was a good find. The lid of his eye swelled with spit, but his heart thumped with pride. He could just hear the whine of the shell speeding toward earth.
Though it was not a direct hit, the group could not run fast enough or wail loud enough to change anything. Amal stepped cautiously back towards his little brother, and the thing he noticed first was that Afif had wet himself. There was no shame in his face, but no smile on his lips, and no light to his eyes. Amal stood perfectly still, afraid that moving would make it true. Then the adults rushed past him and it was true. A man lifted Afif from the floor, and the boy’s arms went limp as if they were reaching for the ground, to where the soldier’s straw had fallen. The man’s face was twisted in anger so deep and dark that no sound could escape it. There were no words.
As Amal stared out from atop the sandy cliff, he found it hard to imagine a thousand years had gone into making the baron landscape he found all around him. The sand and dust swirling through broken buildings and misplaced people seemed to insist that they had just gotten there.
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