The Farther Shore
MILKWEED EDITIONSCopyright © 2007 Matthew Eck
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-57131-057-6
IT WAS FULL DARK, MIDNIGHT, AND HEAT LIKE THAT should have disappeared. Then the bombing started. Those poor souls, the poor fucks of the city, had no idea we were watching from the rooftop of the tallest building in town, six sets of eyes in the night, calling in rounds from the circling AC-130 Spectres. When they fired too close to the city's edge we'd make a call for them to move further out, into the unknown. When they veered too far out over the desert, and the city couldn't feel the shudders anymore, we made another call. It was a tightrope, a balancing act, a burden we adored. We were spotters on the roof, recon in a city controlled by warlords and their clans.
I was sick again from the heat. We'd been on the rooftop since before dawn, and now it was midnight and my eyes were tired from watching.
Fizer and Heath were in the stairwell, watching and listening for any sign that anyone threatening might be in the building. Flies shifted and settled on my hands and face throughout the night, trying to get inside my mouth, my nose, my eyes, and my ears.
There was a giant bunch of bananas painted on the side of the building that faced away from the ocean. On the ocean side was a banana tree with bunches of ripe yellow bananas. The paintings had faded under the hand of all that sand and sun. The building was empty of everything, looted and abandoned to the war.
Each of us was paired with a "battle buddy." It was Fizer and Heath, me and Cooper, and Santiago and Zeller. I was on my belly, watching the city to the east, and I could feel the heat left over from the daytime sun move up and through my body. The ocean existed out there beyond the city, some five miles away, but I couldn't see it through the darkness. The city itself was only discernable as a shadow, a little darker than the night sky. It was a long way down from the seventeenth floor, and other than the light of the stars there was nothing to illuminate the world below. I tucked my Night Vision Goggles back into their case. Using them gave me a headache.
Cooper was to my right, on his belly as well, looking through his binoculars out over the southern part of the city. He surveyed a large swath of the city, from the planes in the distance to the darkness in the street below. Zeller watched to the north. Lieutenant Santiago watched the west, but for the most part he strode back and forth among us. Perhaps he thought that's what leaders do, walk back and forth between positions, overseeing and sharing sympathy. He stayed low, crouched over so that anyone passing by below wouldn't see his silhouette if they happened to look up. But people never seemed to look up in this godforsaken city.
There were close to a million people out there, and most of them had probably just been scared out of their sleep. The city itself was maybe ten miles wide, but shacks and tents stretched far to the horizon outside it. There was no electricity, so it was completely dark at night. Most of the population was starving. In a briefing before the mission, we had been told that some two hundred people a day were lost to starvation, and that the dying were replaced by a steady stream of people straggling in from the countryside, searching for something better. The thought of all of those people, desperate and terrified, dreaming in the darkness, made me feel small.
Sand was everywhere, corroding everything. I rinsed my mouth out with water, but it was still there. It scratched at my flesh when I moved.
Santiago slapped me on the helmet as he passed behind me and said, "Stop thinking so much." Hunched over and chuckling, he walked away. He repeated the line often. It was a mantra he was trying to instill in me.
A car turned down the street that led toward my side of the building. One of its headlights was out and the road was full of holes so that it winked and bobbed before finally turning onto a side street. Fighters wouldn't move around this way at night. The danger in trying to see was also the danger of being seen. All you had to do was aim at the headlights. No one with any knowledge, or history for that matter, would want the enemy to see them.
There were two main clans in the city and they had formed alliances based on tribes, family, friends, and religion. One clan controlled the east, the other the west. Each of the clans controlled villages in the countryside when they wanted to, leaving the city now and then to maraud. They made nearly all their money on the black market, by stealing food shipments, selling weapons, and by controlling the borders and ports, and with them all of the country's exports. In our first month there, we'd come to recognize individual members of the clans in the villages. We would see the man with the wire-rimmed glasses and the long scar on his cheek first in one village and then a few weeks later in another. Somehow they'd find out where we were delivering food the next day. They'd move in on the village, forcing out the locals. Then they'd collect the food and sell it to the villagers after we left.
Outside one village we'd seen a dead body. It was impossible to determine whether the corpse was male or female through the cloak of bees and hornets that covered it. I'd never seen such a thing. As we moved among the villages, our Humvees kicked up so much dust that it never seemed to settle. Great flocks of birds shifted and turned as one on the wind, cutting down into the dust of our wake.
"Josh," Cooper said.
"Yeah," I answered.
"It's Sunday and I'm still afraid." He was trying to be as quiet as possible, so that his voice would disappear in the sound of the wind.
"Who's not," I said.
"Not too many people die on Sunday," he said. "Isn't that right?"
"True enough," I replied.
"No one wants to kill on Sunday," he said. Then we were quiet for a time, waiting on the bombing.
At one o'clock Santiago called over the squad radios for us to check in.
We responded in order of rank. As the only sergeant I was first, then Corporal Fizer, Specialist Heath, Specialist Cooper, and finally Private Zeller.
I crawled on my belly back to my rucksack and took out the binoculars, hoping to see the ocean again. As far as I knew I'd never seen the ocean before that day, and I'd never seen it at night. But when I turned on the night vision, there was nothing but the green glow of the sky and stars, and the dark shapes of the buildings below.
Before night fell, I had noticed that the rooftops were remarkably various, so that the city looked like a quilt spread out. If there was a cool wind blowing in off the ocean, I couldn't feel it here in the city.
Sitting on that rooftop, with all the heat and darkness, the city smelled like death. Enveloped by the stench, the thought of setting sail alone in this world horrified me. I shifted further back from the edge.
It was nearly two in the morning. The bombing would last until dawn.
I forced myself to peer out over the city again. Smart enough to be afraid, I kept my eyes on the darkness below. If anything shifted or turned I didn't want to be caught off guard. I couldn't make out the old van parked up the street, the one we'd used to sneak into the city. We'd rigged the stairwell in case someone tried to sneak up on us.
We'd been told that land mines were everywhere, hidden in potholes and crevices. Aside from the clans, there was no police force or local authority in the area. We had been sent in to restore some order to the capital and provide the people with some needed relief. The rest of the country had been subdued for the most part. This was the last, the worst of all the cities.
We hadn't come across any checkpoints on the way in, but we had been told that such stops were commonplace. There was always a fee to pay, and compliance was not optional.
Headquarters gave us the old van some twenty miles north of the capital. It took us more than two hours to drive the mostly unpaved road that connected the two cities, and then another two hours, staying off the main roads, to find the building we now occupied.
Cooper drove the van disguised as a civilian. He knew the language and some of the culture, and we relied on him to talk us through any checkpoints. We stayed hidden in the back, ready to attack anyone who discovered us. We had been told that most people supported one clan or another because they had to, and that their only real allegiances were to themselves and their family. But the clans were brutal and well armed. We were bombing the outskirts of the city in order to scare them into surrendering the territory they controlled without a fight.
My stomach turned and I felt dizzy. I was having a hard time holding even water down.
Santiago stepped up behind me. I closed my eyes and tried to relax for a moment. I felt as if the wind was being blown into me by way of a strange kiss, as if the city was breathing directly into me. The thick stench of shit and piss, along with the slightly sweet smell of death, smothered me like a blanket. Then I heard Santiago walk away from me and I opened my eyes.
I took a small sip of tepid water and spit on the ground next to me to rid myself of the sand in my mouth. The spit was dry and thick. I looked into the darkness below and at the door of the school across the street.
We'd arrived just before dawn that morning. During the day I watched what appeared to be a school across the street. There were children going in and out, along with a few adults. What was there to teach children in a place like this? How could they learn when armed gangs patrolled the streets and people strolled about with swollen bellies? How to focus when violence pervaded every moment?
We had more than enough water. We'd each brought two half-gallon canteens, along with three or four bottles bearing Arabic writing and rainbows. None of us knew where these bottles had come from. There was something mysterious about them, a touch of the exotic that made the water inside even more delicious, as if it had been drawn from some secret oasis.
"How are you doing?" Cooper asked, crawling to the corner between his side of the building and mine. He was both the medic and my battle buddy, so his interest in my health was twofold.
I moved toward the corner to meet him. "I'm here." Rocks scraped at my elbow and dug into my knees as I crawled over to him. Once there I brushed away the rocks that were pressed into my hands and looked at the indentions they'd left.
"Do you need another IV?" he asked.
"Not now," I said. Then I pulled a canteen from my LBE and took a small sip of water as a sign of goodwill, and because my mouth was dry. The water tasted like rank plastic. "I need some sleep."
"How long has it been?" he asked.
"Close to two weeks."
It was true. I'd been too scared, too nervous, too excited to sleep. I hadn't had a dream in the past two months and I was starting to worry that dreams had something to do with sanity and happiness. And I suspected that my sleeplessness had something to do with the way the world felt inside out, a thick, sticky mess.
"You can't die from lack of sleep," he said. "You just go until your body shuts down, forcing you to sleep."
"Sounds great," I said. I thought about it, the moment your body finally forced you to sleep, home at last.
"My stomach's still a mess," I said. I felt nauseous, as if I was upside down in the world and someone was trying to shake everything out of me.
"It's the sleep," Cooper said, "it'll hurt your stomach."
Soon the sun would be out, trying again to kill us. It was a hundred and twenty in the shade most days. I had shit on myself the day before and I was afraid the sickness might roll over me again without warning.
"If you fall out it's on me," Cooper said. "You should eat something."
"I know," I said.
"Even if you're sick it's better to try and eat," he said.
I'd been hearing this advice my whole life.
"You've got to keep your strength up," he said.
We hadn't been prepared for the heat. We were mainly a cold weather unit, the 10th Mountain Division, Light Infantry based out of Fort Drum, New York. And yet there we were in the desert.
People in other platoons were falling out left and right. They called out strange and often beautiful things as the heat finally forced them to race, face first, to the dirt and sand. Lopez, from first platoon, called out, "Where's the keys," before he fell victim to the sun. But no one carried keys into combat.
When I visited Lopez at the hospital, I asked him, "What the hell was that all about?"
"Hell if I know," he said.
But it had stuck with me nonetheless. "Where's the keys?"
The city shook under a heavy barrage of fire. Dogs howled all around us. Dust rattled into the air. The sun had baked the scent of death into the city's bricks, and it rose with the dust.
People gathered in distant streets, trying to see the sky over the desert. Our faces were camou-flaged so they couldn't make us out if they looked up at the top of the building.
"Do you think Santiago's afraid?" Cooper asked.
"I think we all are," I said.
"This is fucking spooky," said Cooper.
"He knows what he's doing," I said.
Cooper looked up at the sky. "Still."
Santiago wasn't entirely stable, but I trusted him. I'd been on guard duty back at Fort Drum when the MPs brought him to stay in the barracks because his wife had filed assault charges against him. He was living too hard, but he often assured us that it was all a big lie, that his wife had been trying to get him in trouble for years.
And in any case, she was there with his two babies when we left by bus for Griffiths Air Force Base. He'd made some questionable decisions in training, but they nearly always seemed to be an effective way of dealing with the situation at hand.
They'd moved to the larger caliber guns, and the aircraft were concentrating their fire better. They were striving for a great opening night. They were desperate for the city's submission, desperate for perfection.
The Army was out there too, massing to the southwest and the northeast, along the main road that ran down the coast and through the city. We were to gauge the show of force against the level of resistance and report on whether the city was awed enough to accept help in forming some kind of government.
Santiago stepped up behind us, the radio in his hand. "Spectre Six-Two, Spectre Six-Two," he called. "Spectre Six-Two, Spectre Six-Two, adjust fire ten by ten north." He set the handset back on the receiver, then crouched behind me for a moment, watching my section of the city. He was careful to stay away from the edge, just far enough to avoid the view of anyone who might be looking up for a sign of us. I peeked over the edge briefly, but I didn't see a soul in the street below.
"How long do you think we'll be here?" Cooper asked Santiago.
"Don't ask me that," Santiago said. "Forever. Hell, I don't know. Maybe we'll leave you here. What's it matter to you anyway? What have you got to go home to?" He walked away before Cooper could respond.
"Just wondering," Cooper said. He was probably thinking about his virgin life and the girlfriend he planned to make his wife. The others gave him a hard time, saying that he had it all, that he had it all lined up the way a man should. It was such a lonely notion up there on the rooftop.
"We'll be home by Christmas, Coop," I said.
"That'll be good," he said.
"I heard it from Shane, at headquarters," I said.
"Can you imagine so many cities so close together that you wouldn't be able to see a single star for all the light?" He took his Kevlar helmet off and rolled over onto his back. "I've been there. Think about it," he added, as Santiago walked over. "One day you won't be able to see the stars because of all the light."
Santiago turned back to the bombing. Whenever a bomb exploded it briefly colored the darkness of the desert a bright orange.
"Bullshit," Santiago said. "You'd still be able to see them from the ocean." He knelt down and took his helmet off. He ran a hand through his cropped dark hair. "There's a lot of ocean in this world."
"If you got enough money to get out there," Cooper said. "People like us don't." Then he took a long breath, as if he were trying to smell the ocean through the city.
If I knew the names of all of the constellations and all those warriors, gods, and poets that they immortalized, I would have rattled them off, one after the other, for the amusement of Santiago and Cooper. But I know nothing about the stars.