Authors: Elliot Ackerman
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For Ali and Big Cheese
who were my friends
Allah’s Apostle said, “War is deceit.”
—IMAM AL-BUKHARI, 846 AD
any would call me a dishonest man, but I’ve always kept faith with myself. There is an honesty in that, I think.
I am Ali’s brother. We are from a village that no longer exists and our family was not large or prosperous. The war that came after the Russians but before the Americans killed our parents. Of them, I have only dim memories. There is my father’s Kalashnikov hidden in a woodpile by the door, him cleaning it, working oiled rags on its parts, and the smell of gunmetal and feeling safe. There is my mother’s secret, the one she shared with me. Once a month she’d count out my father’s earnings from fighting in the mountains or farming. She’d send me and Ali from our village, Sperkai, to the large bazaar in Orgun, a two-day walk. The Orgun bazaar sold everything: fine cooking oils and spices, candles to light our home and fabrics to repair our clothes. My mother always entrusted me with a special purchase. Before we left, she would press an extra coin in my hand, one she’d stolen from my father. Among the crowded stalls of the bazaar, I would slip away from my brother’s watchful eye and buy her a pack of cigarettes, a vice forbidden to a woman.
When we returned home, I would place the pack in her hiding spot—the birchwood cradle where she’d rocked Ali and me as infants. Our mud-walled house was small, two thatch-roofed rooms with a courtyard
between them. The cradle was kept in the room I shared with Ali. My mother would never get rid of the cradle. It was the one thing that was truly hers. At night, after we’d returned from the bazaar, she’d sneak into our room, her small, sandaled feet gliding across the carpets that lined the dirt floor. Her hand would cup a candle, its smothered light casting shadows on her young face, aging her. Her eyes, one brown and the other green, a miracle or defect of birth, shifted about the room. Carefully she would lean over the cradle, as she’d done before taking us to nurse. She would run her fingers between the blankets that once swaddled my brother and me and, finding the pack I’d left her, she’d step into the courtyard. And I’d fall back asleep to the faint smell of her tobacco just past my door.
This secret made me feel close to my mother. In the years since, I’ve wondered why she entrusted me with it. At times, I’ve thought it was because I was her favorite. But this isn’t why. The truth is, she recognized in me her own ability to deceive.
Like most men, my father farmed a small plot. He understood the complexity of modest tasks—how to tap the ever shifting waters of an underground karez, how to irrigate a field with that water, how to place a boulder at the curve of a furrow so the turning flow would not erode the bend. He taught these lessons to me and Ali. We grew, working by his side, our land binding us together, sure as blood.
In the warm months, my father would head to the mountains, to fight. His group operated under the Haqqanis, and later joined Hezb-e-Islami, but loyalties shifted often. My brother told me that when my father was killed, his group was again with the Haqqanis but now they all served under the Taliban. For a boy these things meant little. Sometimes I wonder how much they matter even to a man.
When I last saw my parents it was summer. Against the Taliban’s orders, my father’s group had returned home early. They’d disobeyed their commanders after being told to extort taxes along a certain road.
At the time, I understood none of this. On that last morning, my father slept late and my mother prepared breakfast in the courtyard. Ali and I had no work to do on our land, and we grew tired of waiting for my father to wake. Our mother grew tired of restless boys, and she shooed us off to gather pine nuts for the meal. We wandered away from the village toward the tall trees lining a ridge. Ali climbed their thick trunks and shook their branches. I gathered the cones that fell, cracking them open between two rocks and picking the nuts from each.
That year, Ali had grown strong enough to climb onto the highest branches. His long arms would grasp above him as he took powerful, assured steps up the tree. He’d only stop when no branches remained to take him higher. When I climbed, I’d test each branch, tugging it to ensure it could hold my weight.
He was about to turn thirteen and would be a boy for only a short while longer. Each year, our mother would buy a bolt of fabric and make one new set of clothes. Ali would get the new set and I’d get his hand-me-down. He was always larger than me, and my clothes never fit.
We both had little education. When my mother was a girl, she’d learned to read and write in a school built by the Russians. She taught us how, but nothing more. My father had never been to school. He’d fought the Russians instead. Now that Ali was old enough to travel on his own, my father planned to send him to the madrassa in Orgun.
What will you learn there? I asked, my head tilted back, staring up at Ali among the pine branches.
I don’t know, he said. If I did, I would not have to learn it.
You leave in the autumn? I asked.
Yes, Aziz, but you’ll see me when you come to the bazaar. And in two years, when you’re old enough, maybe you’ll join me.
Ali shook a high branch and more cones fell around me. I broke them against the rocks. My pockets were nearly filled with nuts when I
heard the sound of an engine in the distance. Ali waved after me and I climbed into the branches with him.
What I saw next I didn’t understand. To remember it is like being on a high trail in the fog, feeling but not seeing the mountains around you. First there was the dust of people running. Behind the dust was a large flatbed truck and many smaller ones. They pushed the villagers as a broom cleans the streets. A shipping container lay on the bed of the large truck. Amid the dust and the heat, I saw men with guns. The men looked like my father but they began to shoot the villagers who ran.
I tried to climb down from the tree, but Ali held me to its trunk. We hid among the branches. A thought came to me again and again: my father has a rifle, too, these men must know my father. Soon the shooting finished. The living and dead were locked together inside the container. I looked for my father but saw him nowhere. The gunmen walked from home to home. They lit the thatched roofs on fire. Still, I told myself not to worry. My father had a rifle. No harm could come to him.
All that day the fires burned. The wind changed and we choked on the smoke from our home. We had no water. The flames receded in the night, but this gave us little relief. Hungry and thirsty, we returned to our village in the morning. The truck and container were gone. Sperkai was empty and smoldering. In our home, the carpets were little more than ash brushed across a dirt floor. My mother’s cradle had collapsed into a pile of charred sticks. But my father’s Kalashnikov lay hidden by the door, mixed with the woodpile’s embers. I reached for the damaged rifle. Ali swatted my hand away. He had no interest in it.
This is no longer our home, he said.
I clutched my hand to my chest. It stung from where Ali had struck me. I opened my mouth to speak, but my throat filled with the sorrow of all I’d lost. I swallowed, then asked: Where will we go?
You’ll come with me, he answered as though he were a destination.
We traveled the familiar road to Orgun. In the city, we hoped to find work and perhaps some news of our parents. Each day we begged our meals in the streets. Cars sped by us. Gray buildings rose several stories high, a stream of people passing in and out of them. We crouched in the doorways. As crowded as Orgun was, it might as well have been deserted. We never saw the same face twice. Those who looked at us did so with pity, as if we were doomed boys. Ali was nearly a man, but having no family made him a boy.
Once, in Sperkai, an older child had split my lip in a fight. When my father saw this, he took me to the boy’s home. Standing at their front gate, he demanded that the father take a lash to his son. The man refused and my father didn’t ask twice. He struck the man in the face, splitting his lip just as his son had split mine. Before the man could get back to his feet my father left, the matter settled. On the walk home, my father spoke to me of badal, revenge. He told me how a man, a Pashtun man, had an obligation to take badal when his nang, his honor, was challenged. In Orgun, every stranger’s glance made me ache for a time when my father might return and take badal against those who’d pitied his sons.
Ali and I would beg during the days. At night we would leave Orgun and cross the high desert plain to the low hills that surrounded the city. There we would rest with the other orphans. Among them, we’d share a crack in the earth or the embers of a spent fire, our shadows mixing as we slept. Some stayed for a night or two, never to be seen again, others stayed for years. Ali warned me against befriending these boys. He didn’t trust anyone as poor as us.
We lived like this for two winters.
One night as we left Orgun, it began to snow. Ali and I stumbled across the barren plain. Dust turned to mud in the storm. The snow gathered
on the earth and on our shoes and clothes. Our bodies melted the snow and we became wet. Around us, the storm and the darkness blew neither white nor black, just empty. Soon we were lost. On the plain, there was no fold in the earth or clump of trees to protect us. Far off, we saw a square shadow. We staggered toward it, and pulled open the rusted hinges of some metal doors, and climbed inside. Outside the cold had cut into us, but inside the cold came differently, it stuck. Ali struck a match. The shelter appeared empty, but then, in the corner, I saw rags, pieces of torn clothing. I gathered them and my brother built a weak fire. The flames danced against the walls. Long claw marks ran down the walls, to the steel of the seams. At the seams were nicks and dents, places where the metal had been pulled up. The fire went out. The storm heaved outside. In the dark I sat against Ali and shook.
In the morning I woke up alone. The door was cracked open and it showed a sliver of perfect blue. Outside, Ali sat on his knees in the snow. The shelter was a shipping container. I crouched beside him.
Shall we go back to Orgun? I asked.
Ali spoke in a quiet voice as he looked at the far-off hills: Remember the tower?
I turned my eyes to where he was looking. A radio tower stood atop one of the hills. We had seen the same tower from our home in Sperkai. At night it flashed a red light. Our father had a story about that tower and a silver ring he wore, set with a chip of ruby. He used to tell us how the stone was made of the tower’s light, and how when he was younger he’d climbed the steel scaffolding and stolen it. I can’t remember when I stopped believing the story, but by that morning I no longer did. My father had promised the ring to Ali when he was grown. Ali had once pestered my father about the ring, asking how much longer he would have to wait. My father had told him: When you aren’t a boy who whines about a ring then you’ll have it.
Now Ali held up his hand to me. I saw he wore the small ruby on his thumb.
Where did you get that? I asked, feeling hope and fear.
I found it in the corner, answered Ali.
He never would have left the ring, said Ali sharply.
I sat next to my brother in the snow. I imagined one of the men who’d come to our village that day, pulling the ring from our father’s finger only to later forget it—or, worse, discard it as junk. I thought of my father’s hands. They’d always been strong—strong enough to claw marks into the container’s side. Ali looked at me, and in the space between breaths his eyes filled and then dried like a quick tide.
What now? I asked.
My brother stood and said: I think this is the season’s last snow.
He used to go to the mountains after the last snow, I answered, and moved beside him.
Yes, said Ali, his voice like a whisper. I will do better for you, Aziz.
In the summer he figured a way.
It started with a wheelbarrow. Ali found it in a ravine and began to haul me around Orgun in it. Its empty front tire flapped against the dust and announced our arrival with every bump. I rode in the scoop and played the cripple. I’d droop my arms, hide my legs beneath a canvas sack as if I had none, and breathe heavily through an open mouth. Along the streets Ali would shout: Zakat for my brother! Charity for my poor cripple of a brother!
Five times a day, after the faithful finished namaz, Ali would wheel me to one of the city’s mosques. The mullahs often passed out scraps of food, some naan or a bowl of plain rice. The wealthy pray less than the
poor, so we begged for change in the bazaar. Here Ali would struggle to hold the wheelbarrow upright as the crowds pressed against it. Beside the heaps of scrap metal, stacks of lumber, and sacks of pistachios and pomegranates, merchants shouted their prices into the street. Ali’s voice mixed with the merchants as he cried out for zakat, and I slumped in the wheelbarrow playing my part. Mostly we were ignored or shooed away, but from time to time a coin would be pressed into my brother’s palm just as my mother once pressed one into mine.