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Authors: Kevin Powers

Yellow Birds

BOOK: Yellow Birds
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For my wife

A yellow bird

With a yellow bill

Was perched upon

My windowsill

  

I lured him in

With a piece of bread

And then I smashed

His fucking head…

—Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence

  

  

To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

—Sir Thomas Browne

1

SEPTEMBER 2004

Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq

The war tried
to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.

The war had killed thousands by September. Their bodies lined the pocked avenues at irregular intervals. They were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life. The war had tried its best to kill us all: man, woman, child. But it had killed fewer than a thousand soldiers like me and Murph. Those numbers still meant something to us as what passed for fall began. Murph and I had agreed. We didn’t want to be the thousandth killed. If we died later, then we died. But let that number be someone else’s milestone.

We hardly noticed a change when September came. But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then. Perhaps light came a little more slowly to the city of Al Tafar, falling the way it did beyond thin shapes of rooflines and angled promenades in the dark. It fell over buildings in the city, white and tan, made of clay bricks roofed with corrugated metal or concrete. The sky was vast and catacombed with clouds. A cool wind blew down from the distant hillsides we’d been patrolling all year. It passed over the minarets that rose above the citadel, flowed down through alleys with their flapping green awnings, out over the bare fields that ringed the city, and finally broke up against the scattered dwellings from which our rifles bristled. Our platoon moved around our rooftop position, gray streaks against the predawn light. It was still late summer then, a Sunday, I think. We waited.

For four days we had crawled along the rooftop grit. We slipped and slid on a carpeting of loose brass casings left over from the previous days’ fighting. We curled ourselves into absurd shapes and huddled below the whitewashed walls of our position. We stayed awake on amphetamines and fear.

I pushed my chest off the rooftop and crested the low wall, trying to scan the few acres of the world for which we were responsible. The squat buildings beyond the field undulated through the tinny green of my scope. Bodies were scattered about from the past four days of fighting in the open space between our positions and the rest of Al Tafar. They lay in the dust, broken and shattered and bent, their white shifts gone dark with blood. A few smoldered among the junipers and spare tufts of grass, and there was a heady mix of carbon and bolt oil and their bodies burning in the newly crisp air of morning.

I turned around, ducked back below the wall and lit a cigarette, shielding the cherry in my curled palm. I pulled long drags off it and blew the smoke against the top of the roof, where it spread out, then rose and disappeared. The ash grew long and hung there and a very long time seemed to pass before it fell to the ground.

The rest of the platoon on the roof started to move and jostle with the flickering half-light of dawn. Sterling perched with his rifle over the wall, sleeping and starting throughout our waiting. He jerked his head back occasionally and swiveled to see if anyone had caught him. He showed me a broad disheveled grin in the receding dark, held up his trigger finger and daubed Tabasco sauce into his eyes to stay awake. He turned back toward our sector, and his muscles visibly bucked and tensed beneath his gear.

Murph’s breath was a steady comfort to my right. I had grown accustomed to it, the way he’d punctuate its rhythm with a well-practiced spit into an acrid pool of dark liquid that always seemed to be growing between us. He smiled up at me. “Want a rub, Bart?” I nodded. He passed me a can of care-package Kodiak, and I jammed it into the cup of my bottom lip, snubbing out my cigarette. The wet tobacco bit and made my eyes water. I spat into the pool between us. I was awake. Out of the gray early morning the city became whole. White flags hung in a few scattered windows in the buildings beyond the bodies in the field. They formed an odd crochet where the window’s dark recesses were framed by jagged glass. The windows themselves were set into whitewashed buildings that became ever brighter in the sun. A thin fog off the Tigris dissipated, revealing what hints of life remained, and in the soft breeze from the hills to the north the white rags of truce fluttered above those same green awnings.

Sterling tapped at the face of his watch. We knew the muezzin’s song would soon warble its eerie fabric of minor notes out from the minarets, calling the faithful to prayer. It was a sign and we knew what it meant, that hours had passed, that we had drawn nearer to our purpose, which was as vague and foreign as the indistinguishable dawns and dusks with which it came.

“On your toes, guys!” the LT called in a forceful whisper.

Murph sat up and calmly worked a small dot of lubricant into the action of his rifle. He chambered a round and rested the barrel against the low wall. He stared off into the gray angles where the streets and alleys opened onto the field to our front. I could see into his blue eyes, the whites spiderwebbed with red. They had fallen farther into his sockets during the past few months. There were times when I looked at him and could only see two small shadows, two empty holes. I let the bolt push a round into the chamber of my rifle and nodded at him. “Here we go again,” I said. He smiled from the corner of his mouth. “Same old shit again,” he answered.

 

We’d come to that building as the moon flagged to a sliver in the first hours of the battle. There were no lights on. We crashed our vehicle through a flimsy metal gate that had once been painted dark red but had since rusted over, so that it was hard to tell what part had been painted red and what part was rust. When the ramp dropped from our vehicle we rushed to the door. A few soldiers from first squad rushed to the back, and the rest of the platoon stacked up at the front. We kicked in both doors at the same time and ran in. The building was empty. As we went through each room, the lights affixed to the front of our rifles cut narrow cylinders through the dark interior, but they were not bright enough to see by. The lights showed the dust we’d kicked up. Chairs had been turned over in some of the rooms, and colorfully woven rugs hung over the windowsills where the glass had been shot out. There were no people. In some of the rooms we thought we saw people and we yelled out sharply for the people who were not there to get on the floor. We went through each room like that until we got to the roof. When we got to the roof, we looked out over the field. The field was flat and made of dust and the city was dark behind it.

At daybreak on the first day our interpreter, Malik, came out onto the flat concrete roof and sat next to me where I leaned against the wall. It was not yet light, but it almost appeared to be because the sky was white the way the sky is when heavy with snow. We heard fighting across the city, but it had not reached us yet. Only the noise of rockets and machine guns and helicopters swooping down near vertical in the distance told us we were in a war.

“This is my old neighborhood,” he told me.

His English was exceptional. There was a glottal sound in his voice, but it was not harsh. I’d often asked him to help me with my sparse Arabic, trying to get my pronunciation of this or that word right. “Shukran.” “Afwan.” “Qumbula.”
Thank you. You’re welcome. Bomb.
He’d help, but he always ended our exchanges by saying, “My friend, I need to speak English. For the practice.” He’d been a student at the university before the war, studying literature. When the university closed, he came to us. He wore a hood over his face, worn khaki slacks and a faded dress shirt that appeared to be ironed freshly every day. He never took his mask off. The one time Murph and I had asked him about it, he took his index finger and traced the fringe of the hood that hung around his neck. “They’ll kill me for helping you. They’ll kill my whole family.”

Murph hunched low and trotted over from the other side of the roof where he had been helping the LT and Sterling set up the machine gun after we’d arrived. Watching him move, I got the impression that the flatness of the desert made him nervous. That somehow the low ridgelines in the distance made the dried brown grasses of the floodplain even more unbearable.

“Hey, Murph,” I said. “This is Malik’s old stomping grounds.”

Murph ducked quickly and sat next to the wall. “Whereabouts?” he asked.

Malik stood up and pointed to a strip of buildings that seemed to grow organically in odd, not quite ninety-degree sections. The buildings stood beyond the field at the beginning of our sector. A little farther past the outskirts of Al Tafar, there was an orchard. Fires burned from steel drums and trash heaps and sprung up seemingly without cause around the edges of the city. Murph and I did not stand up, but we saw where Malik pointed.

“Mrs. Al-Sharifi used to plant her hyacinth in this field.” He spread his hands out wide and moved his arms in a sweeping motion that reminded me of convocation.

Murph reached for the cuff of Malik’s pressed shirt. “Careful, big guy. You’re gonna get silhouetted.”

“She was this crazy old widow.” He had his hands on his hips. His eyes were glazed over with exhaustion. “The women in the neighborhood were so jealous of those flowers.” Malik laughed. “They accused her of using magic to make them grow the way they did.” He’d paused then, and put his hands on the dried mud wall we’d been leaning against. “They were burned up in the battle last fall. She did not try to replant them this year,” he finished brusquely.

I tried to imagine living there but could not, even though we had patrolled the same streets Malik was talking about and drank tea in the small clay hovels and I’d had my hands wrapped in the thinly veined hands of the old men and women who lived in them. “All right, buddy,” I said. “You’re gonna get your ass shot off if you don’t get down.”

“It is a shame you didn’t see those hyacinths,” he said.

And then it started. It seemed as if the movement of one moment to the next had its own trajectory, a thing both finite and expansive, like the endless divisibility of numbers strung out on a line. The tracers reached out from all the dark spaces in the buildings across the field, and there were many more bullets than streaks of phosphorescence. We heard them tear at the air around our ears and smack into the clay brick and concrete. We did not see Malik get killed, but Murph and I had his blood on both of our uniforms. When we got the order to cease fire we looked over the low wall and he was lying in the dust and there was a lot of blood around him.

 

“Doesn’t count, does it?” Murph asked.

“No. I don’t think so.”

“What’re we at?”

“Nine sixty-eight? Nine seventy? We’ll have to check the paper when we get back.”

I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed. And now, as I reflect on how I felt and behaved as a boy of twenty-one from my position of safety in a warm cabin above a clear stream in the Blue Ridge, I can only tell myself that it was necessary. I needed to continue. And to continue, I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare. Rare was the bullet with your name on it, the IED buried just for you. Those were the things we watched for.

I didn’t think about Malik much after that. He was an incidental figure who only seemed to exist in his relation to my continuing life. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You’re nothing, that’s the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust. And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance. We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die. We confused correlation with cause and saw a special significance in the portraits of the dead, arranged neatly next to the number corresponding to their place on the growing list of casualties we read in the newspapers, as indications of an ordered war. We had a sense, something we only felt in the brief flash of synapse to synapse, that these names had been on the list long before the dead had come to Iraq. That the names were there as soon as those portraits had been taken, a number given, a place assigned. And that they’d been dead from that moment forward. When we saw the name Sgt. Ezekiel Vasquez, twenty-one, Laredo, Texas, #748, killed by small-arms fire in Baqubah, Iraq, we were sure that he’d walked as a ghost for years through South Texas. We thought he was already dead on the flight over, that if he was scared when the C-141 bringing him to Iraq had pitched and yawed through the sky above Baghdad there had been no need. He had nothing to fear. He’d been invincible, absolutely, until the day he was not. The same, too, for Spc. Miriam Jackson, nineteen, Trenton, New Jersey, #914, dead as a result of wounds sustained in a mortar attack in Samarra, at Landsthul Regional Medical Center. We were glad. Not that she was killed, only that we were not. We hoped that she’d been happy, that she took advantage of her special status before she inevitably arrived under that falling mortar, having gone out to hang her freshly washed uniform on a line behind her connex.

BOOK: Yellow Birds
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