I’ve been back home two weeks, and as I look out a corner window I still can’t get over how much the mountains east of town mirror the cracking peaks circling Kabul. It’s early summer warm in the carpeted chapel. My youngest daughter Hailey moans frustration, and I bend over Elsa and forcefully whisper, “Don’t make me.” She eyes me like I’m a stranger. She slants into Elsa’s red dress, my favorite, and quiets down.
A year away and my dark suit drapes loose on my dry, thin frame. Elsa tries to calm both of our daughters as a lady with too much eye shadow cries at the podium. She sniffles through something about how tithing has lifted her soul. She gathers herself: “It’s easy to die for the Lord, but much more difficult to live for Him.” It’s a prepared statement, but she’s proud of it. It settles nicely over the congregation as each member contemplates his or her life and the things they do or do not give to Him. I glance at Elsa and I can tell she’s contemplating it all because she has her unfocused stare on the seat in front of her. She probably considers what service to this country means – my being away so often.
Perhaps she relives Hailey’s birth, driving thirty minutes to the military hospital only to be sent back because she wasn’t dilated enough; then, when it was time, waiting an hour for the anesthesiologist, giving birth, and soon after, trying to get me on the phone half a world away only to be told that they were waiting for my convoy to return; resting and worrying, imagining the worst, and finally, writing an e-mail she hoped I would be alive to read with nothing in the body, just the subject line, “girl – Hailey?” I bet she chalks that up on the side of giving something to the Lord. I rub her back and she leans into it slightly, rewarding me. I don’t know if the Lord wanted me to join the military. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Still, I attempt sincere introspection on this Sunday morning, but all that materializes in my mental jumble of reverence is a green meadow in northern Afghanistan.
The pasture floor felt like a fairway under our boots, soft and tended. Just arrived, I stood in a line next to Big Dax and Nettles, plunging penicillin shots into kids in the narrow valley. Big Dax was broad-shouldered, broad-nosed, with a slight shrapnel limp, and Nettles was jittery, but talkative, and lean as an opium stem. I asked why the kids weren’t in school, but everyone ignored me. Big Dax could sense my nervousness and told me to touch the kids, to hold their hands, to sing, anything, as I pressed the needle into their shoulders. Nettles said we were as safe as we’d ever be because no one ever shoots at us when we inoculate and clothe. “Still,” he said, “stay close to the children.” Big Dax said some of the kids risk having their arms cut off to get the shots, that’s why we only see the worst. “This is the definition of victim,” he said.
The children were dirty and maimed and hungry. Some came with growths, bulges of skin on their necks, temples, hips. There wasn’t an overweight kid among them, and as I felt their arms and hair, and held their hands I thought of my daughters, especially Brooke, the oldest, who refused to eat anything unless she had a dollop of peanut butter on her plate. The only children’s song I knew all the way through was the ABCs; it’s what I sang to the girls every night while I tucked them in. So this is what I sang in the gorge, and after a while I left out the letters and just hummed. The melody calmed me. I thought of the minuscule amount my daughters were growing each day, how Brooke would be old enough to play catch with me when I returned, how they might be able to tuck themselves in.
After the shots we waited around with some amputees and played cards. They waited for their limbs to fall from the cloudy sky, looking up in reverence, but when it was time to pray an old man floated down a red and brown prayer rug as the children joined the limbless adults, their joined voices echoing off the valley walls.
“They know not what they say,” Big Dax said. I guessed he meant the children, most likely illiterate, repeating the chant placed before them since birth. But maybe it was directed at all of them, kneeling and bowing and rising in unison.
Before too long a C-130 lumbered overhead and dipped its wings as the parachute opened on the crate of arms and legs floating down to us. Nettles wondered out loud if the Afghans thought Allah was a C-130 pilot, or the plane itself. Big Dax said it’s all about will. I was quiet. I considered how my body was assembled, piece by piece. I stared at the crease between my forearm and bicep, wondering what exactly held it all together. We helped fit everyone, and many of the limbs didn’t match up well. Most of the arms were too long or the wrong shade of skin, but the armless didn’t seem to mind. We had a few legs left over, so we sent the confused citizenry home with extras. What were we going to do with them? It was a sight: the newly healed limping away, grappling plastic legs piled high like firewood.
On our way home from church Elsa balls her fists as she eyes the horizon. It’s quiet save the air conditioner. I focus on the oncoming traffic, trying to push away the thought of one of cars abruptly turning into us head on. I picture the slow motion collision. It’s oddly beautiful and choreographed, all of us in the sluggish lean mid contact. And then I hear “hello” and “hey”, and Elsa waves her hand at me, and brushes her thighs.
Five blocks from home Elsa apologizes, says: “I have to ask. Did you kill anyone this time?” She wants to know what she’s dealing with. The children wear headphones in the middle row watching cartoons. I tell her no, and this may be true. She asks if the welcome back program at base helps at all. I open my mouth, but don’t know how to answer. They have counselors, sure, but what if you don’t have nightmares? Since I’ve been back I’ve felt fine. I’m happy and content. I sleep decent enough, and my dreams have yet to wake me. The VA lines are manageable and the receptionists courteous. I make love to Elsa and enjoy it. But this is the problem.
I should be different, messed up, jittery. I wait for the consequences of war a little scared they won’t arrive. I want the shakes. I want to dread the time I watched guards wrangle up the prisoners just to slap them around as they chanted “Allahu Akbar” over and over. I need to feel the pain, suffer the guilt of masturbating during the prayer calls. To make matters worse, slight yearnings ebb up for the amplified voices from the minarets, the smell of crap, dust, and rot that glided through the Afghan streets. Tiny itches arise for the chaos that greeted me each morning and made me feel like I could die at any moment, and other times, when the occasional blood moon out my window convinced me I would live forever. Again, Elsa’s voice lifts me out of the daydream. She reaches to hold my hand over the center console.
“I want to know how I’m supposed to talk to you.”
I hear Elsa, but washed once over; it’s like a memory speaking to me, and I wait to hear how I will reply. I grip the leather wrapped steering wheel, and stare down the blue Toyota 4×4 approaching fast, left tires hugging the double yellow. The truck’s chrome grill sparkles at me.
“I want to know how to talk to you,” Elsa says again. This is real.
“Be thankful I’m not hurt. I’m not limping. I can play with our children.” I pause and smile. “And I’ve never been right up here.” I tap my head, already aware of and disappointed by my immaturity. Elsa goes silent and I can see the forced air flutter the sleeves of her church dress. The air conditioner works hard, and I have three of the four console fans on Elsa. I’m acclimated to heat.
I was there the hot July morning when the Toyota exploded on the brown gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Big Dax, Nettles and I had been sent into the city for escort duty. We were half a block away when the crazed pulse unfolded the air around us. Nettles threw up on his boots and I came to as Dax dumped water into my eyes, cursing. Bodies and flames littered the street, shit and screams everywhere. A few people ran, some stumbled as though walking for the first time. Some took photographs. I reached down to drag a silent boy away and felt his shoulder detach and his arm slide smooth from his body. Overhead, entrails hung from electrical wires. Big Dax almost shot a man running in to help. A bearded man in white linen took photos, stepping over slithering bodies. I watched him cover a charred man’s genitals with a blue cloth before snapping away at the corpse.
The evening of the embassy blast I listened to the calls to prayer. I knew east from the arrow on the wall marked “mashreq”. Nettles slept in the corner without a blanket. My limbs and mind ached, and I sifted through anger and despair. I monitored my fingers and willed them to stop fluttering, but my body wouldn’t listen. I soon found myself on my knees, hoping to tap into some communal source of faith and belief. I doubt it was ever that idealistic or focused, because soon my mind drifted to the millions of people praying against us. I considered the problem if Allah or God or some other cloud of justice placed spiritual devotion into the equation, because surely we would lose. I thought of how I’d taught my daughters to pray, and what to pray for. Hailey was old enough now. Elsa had sent an e-mail of what Hailey recited every night, said she always finished with “thank you”. I knew that Elsa would have her at the side of her bed, kneeling, with her elbows on the comforter. Elsa said they were working on “Amen”, but she thought that “thank you” was just as good. I considered the purpose of “Amen” and realized I had no idea what it meant. I thought of waking Nettles, but he wouldn’t know. The melody from the minarets filtered through the window that framed an orange dusk in the street. I don’t know if there are such things as anti-epiphanies, but if there are, I had one right then, kneeling by the window. In Afghanistan, everything I knew had different names, and the words I did say, I didn’t know their meanings.
Two days later, while on patrol, a man we’d seen almost daily with a gray beard and a limp offered his daughter to me and Nettles. Her age was hard to tell, but I forced my mind to confirm eighteen. She smiled with her green eyes when he tapped her leg with his cane. The girl was tall and smelled of lavender. She offered her hand to me in the narrow alley. Nettles came up and with nervous hands took back the girl’s hijab to reveal her dark hair. The father said, “America” as if he’d just learned the word. Nettles considered it. Not the America part, just the offer. We were hot in all of our gear and the shade of the alley helped. I fingered my rifle, so adjusted that it felt a part of my body, and waited for Nettles after he entered the shabby dwelling with the girl. The father spoke no English so I leaned on the white walls of the building, waiting, thinking about the shade and smell and the result if I’d been born in that very alley. As we walked later in the afternoon Nettles seemed happy and refreshed. He spoke of Jersey, of playing football on a losing team, of what it meant to get out of his small hometown before he returned to settle down. The brief escape was all the credibility he would need. I didn’t ask any questions about the encounter. Later, he told me that he began to undress the girl, but stopped himself. She had even grabbed his hands and placed them on her bare shoulders, but still he resisted. He said that moment was the only time he’d ever felt powerful without holding a weapon.
Elsa bought our new house while I was overseas. The red bricked two story feels too big for our family. Rooms go unused. We pull into the garage and I let her lift the kids out of the car. We settle into the late Sunday afternoon and I unbutton the top of my shirt. I help feed the girls grilled cheese, and Elsa tells me that Brooke doesn’t need the peanut butter dollop anymore.
Later, as the girls nap, Elsa asks me what I’m thinking about as I sit on the couch watching golf, the fairy-tale green fairways. I’m really thinking about how they grow and cut the grass in diamond patterns so perfectly for the golf tournament, but I can tell she wants something weighty. I see the hope in her elbowed lean across the granite counter, in her slightly raised eyebrows, so I tell her that I often contemplate who is going to win in the end, Allah or God. It’s a little sarcastic, but I sell it with eye contact. I expect a little ribbing or a frustrated nod, but she takes the bait. This is exactly what she wanted, and she comes from the kitchen to sit next to me. She turns off the television without asking. She says that we’re blowing it because we not good enough Christians; that the Muslims have nothing against Christianity, that if we actually practiced our faith, were as devoted as they were, we’d get along fine. She’s bought the woman’s talk in church, perhaps always believed it, but it’s morphed into application. The blame is ours, she tells me, America’s; we’re strong in all the wrong ways. I nod along; it’s all I can do. I’d love to believe her, but all I can muster is vague understanding; her words lack possibility. When I don’t respond Elsa pulls my head to her chest and slides her fingers through my hair. She wants to heal something in me, and I wonder if she’s disappointed I’m whole.
That evening, my daughters play in our fenced backyard. The shifting cottonwoods relinquish their fluffy seeds to the breeze. Things get a little heated between the girls after Brooke trips Hailey and tugs on her leg, pulling her around the yard. They’re starting to look more and more like Elsa. I’m about to ask her what she thinks about a third when she leans over on our back porch and whispers, “You have to touch your children.” The statement jolts me, and I feel the shock and anger brew inside my limbs. I envision myself stabbing my fist into the stucco wall, but before I stand I shuffle through the last two weeks and come up with nothing. The girls were too shy to hug me when I came off the C-17 with the cameras flashing and the news teams and music. I rush past bedtime routines, feedings, walks to the park, and realize I haven’t held them yet. The realization hollows me.
Without a word I rise. My daughters now play with the water hose, Brooke half plugging the stream into a water fan, and for the first time their giggles terrify me. I walk onto the wet grass, but steps away I realize it’s true, I’ve forgotten how to touch my children. I feel a crushing weight that stops and holds me. Do I grasp them and throw them in the air? Take the hose and spray them? Do I ask for permission? I want to live for them, but it all feels wrong, and before I know it I’m sitting, crushing the dusk grass, and everyone pauses, even young Hailey, with a puddle quickly covering her toes. I open my arms, but my children stand motionless. Why can’t they come to me? I could receive them easily. I sense Elsa moving in the background, not wanting to say anything. I imagine she’s waving them forward, begging them with her arms, but they stand locked in place, staring above me. The water puddle reaches my legs. Elsa says, “Sing the ABCs.” I hear her and see my arms and hands reach out to the great expanse in front of me. Just before I begin the melody, Brooke starts with the “A” and Hailey joins in by the “E”. My daughters gaze at Elsa, singing quietly in the air, their faces solemn. She must be mouthing the letters behind me. The refrain should sound elementary, but the dual-voiced letters enter my dry ears with veneration. I’ve taught them a beautiful prayer. They recite the building blocks to everything we’ll ever say to each other.
When they finish I expect a surge of something, a new resolve or answer awaiting me after “Z”. I want to feel like I’m about to come alive, but it’s near dark, and all I feel is Elsa’s hands, now on my shoulders, working to squeeze life into me.
By: Jesse Goolsby