Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Seventy-Two Virgins [Chapter 35]

I'm posting the chapters of Resolution 786. I'll post each successive chapter roughly every 3 or 4 days. Here's Chapter 35:

A line of soldiers moved briskly down the dusty sidewalk, mercilessly crunching gravel under their worn combat boots. Their equipment belts rattled gently in cadence with their windy stride, chimes on a lazy summer afternoon. The houses around the bright, sun-swept street were shaped like boxes and made of gray, dust covered cinder blocks and cement. Cryptic, beautifully spray painted Arabic graffiti marked many of the walls in the common areas between the homes. A rusted old car drove by on the road beside them, black as a hearse, headed in the opposite direction, its muffler bubbling lazily, the sun’s sharp glare casting its windows in impenetrable shadows.

Hueghlomm panted to keep pace. He and the soldiers of Platoon 110 were patrolling the shaded side of Mahmood Street. Half the platoon patrolled in front of him, the other half behind. Hueghomm wore the same uniform and boots as the soldiers, but his were crisp, new, poorly fitted. He breathed hard, sweat making slow, rolling trails down his forehead behind the heavy combat helmet. His discordant gait was out of place, sloppy, a dearth of fluidity when compared to the soldiers around him.

“Watch the retard!” Lee yelled, moving forward at the leading edge of the patrol. “You never know who’s doing what with these guys.”

A shirtless young man with a crooked face and a hunched back bounced by them. He looked to be in his early twenties. One side of his mouth drooped savagely, baring crooked yellow teeth. He had a heavy nose with a huge crook growing underneath thick, black, torturously curled eyebrows that stretched in one continuous arch across his enormous forehead. His misshapen shoulders held one arm lower than the other as he moved over the dusty ground in a jagged two-step hop that made his limp wrists and hands dangle like dead chickens.

A pack of children began shouting and yelling at him from one of the adjacent street shops. It was an almost daily ritual whenever school was out. He stopped and bounced up and down like a kangaroo in one spot outside the shop door, waving at the loud children in a grotesque flail. The mob of little boys and girls suddenly stormed out of the shop in a whirl of high-pitched shouting, surrounding him in a menacing ring, swinging small hands and fists all around his contorted form. The frightened man flailed furiously and spun around on one foot a few times, then broke away from the swarm of tiny, shouting bodies. He hopped down Mahmood Street, eyes bulging, the children following behind him with pumping little fists and a fading crescendo of gnashing taunts.

The shopkeeper strolled out of the emptied doorway, smiling. He had slits for eyes. A skinny black line of mustache had drawn itself tightly along the top edge of his thin lips. “That man is Crazy Man,” he told Lamech and Hueghlomm in broken English. “He say he believe of a Loving God.” The shopkeeper laughed hard, his head tilted back, mouth pulled open to one side. He turned to go back inside his shop, reviling in the hilarity of the Crazy Man’s belief. “Loving God,” he chortled sarcastically, amused, and vanished into his shop.

Platoon 110 moved past the shops, past the women and men carrying bags of food and home supplies, away from the block of commerce and into a block of homes. They patrolled by an open doorway where a young girl, perhaps ten or eleven, stood, her face tilted down in virginal timidity. She was covered in a clean, newly ironed black burqa, only her face and hands showing. She was exceptionally attractive, almost beautiful, and her hands were soft, white. She stood expressionless as the unending line of soldiers slowly crossed her home’s entrance, arms stretched across the doorway in a protective, blocking stance, palms gently pressed against each side of the doorframe.

“I’d fuck that shit,” said Lee a few feet after passing her.

“You sick fuck,” said Webster, patrolling behind him.

“What’s the problem, Webster? Boyfriend trouble?” Lee provoked, staring forward.

“Can’t you just shut the fuck up?” Webster begged angrily from behind.

Lamech patrolled about twenty yards to the rear of Webster and Lee, immediately behind Hueghlomm. A twenty-yard separation in a combat patrol felt like a different world. The short distance could be the difference between combat and combat support. It could be the difference between living and dying.

Hueghlomm didn’t notice the girl when he reached the open doorway. He was single-mindedly scanning the adjacent road surface for signs of recent digging or other indications of buried devices. Lamech smiled at the girl as he passed. She saw his smile, didn’t return it and instead looked down until she was sure that he’d passed. Lamech frowned, put off. A few moments later Lamech spoke at Hueghlomm from behind, his voice high and curious. “Doc, one of the guys said that your mom’s one of them?” Even though the sentence wasn’t structured as a question, its tone and delivery carried a question mark.

Hueghlomm responded groggily, awakened from his singular focus on the road surface. “What’s that?”

“Your mom,” said Lamech.

“What about her?” Hueghlomm was disturbed by the distraction but curious about its focus.

“Was she…you know,” Lamech rotated his non-trigger palm towards the sky and shrugged his shoulders just a nudge as he finished his hesitating question, “…American?”

“Yes,” said Hueghlomm, but he knew that he hadn’t answered Lamech’s question. He waited to see if Lamech would pursue the query. He didn’t. Hueghlomm waited longer. Still no follow up. A few more steps down the street, Hueghlomm decided to answer. “She was an American, originally from Pakistan, from a place called Karachi. She grew up in Africa, was raised, lived and died a Muslim. She raised me a Muslim…and a Jew.”

“Oh,” Lamech responded.

The patrol had stopped at a sunny intersection ahead. First Sergeant Blake ordered his soldiers to halt. The soldiers towards the front of the patrol lifted their right hands in the air and made fists, a gesture that the soldiers behind them repeated until the message of a temporary stop made its way down and to the rear. They had stopped for a herd of goats. An old shepherd and two young boys were guiding the goats across the road. The herd was multicolored. White, black, brown and checkered goats moved about in the mix, bumping into each other, holding their sloped foreheads in the air, bah, bah, bah all the way across the dusty desert road. The old shepherd herded his flock into a snaking, lazy column with a thin tree branch, augmenting his gentle nudges with an occasional sharp whistle. The two boys seemed less efficient, yelling, “Ha, ha!” whenever they’d see a goat go astray.
The soldiers of Platoon 110 waited patiently for the shepherd and his flock to move along. They watched that sea of innocent goats, some soldiers smiling at them, others scowling. Standing there in place, watching the seemingly infinite herd, Lamech asked Hueghlomm, “Is it true that you guys get seventy-two virgins when you die?”

“I’ve heard about the virgins, but not the ‘seventy-two’ part,” replied Hueghlomm, gaze fixed on the herd.

Lamech, himself watching the goats, ruminated. “That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?”

More goats passed by as Hueghlomm collected his thoughts. “I don’t know,” he answered, thinking out loud, eyes squinted. “I really don’t understand this fascination with virgins. I mean, why seventy-two blushing virgins? You’d think that’d be a frustrating waste of time, especially after a lifetime of being good. Now if the Lord gave us seventy-two wild whores when we die, that’d be something. That’d be a party.”

And then they quietly watched the goats.

The herd continued to pass by, unabated.