Heavy Transport by Beverly A. Jackson
“Farid, we need you over here.” The Marine Lieutenant scowls against a setting sun, motioning to the interpreter.
Azizi Farid waves and steps out of the Humvee. It is still hot, and his shirt sticks to his torso. The gateway to the village is rippling with quarrelsome Iraqis, stray dogs, and military men.
He passes the transport truck parked on the side of the road. The driver, a corporal, holds his chin in his hands, crouching beside a sergeant who interrogates him and writes on a clipboard.
In the middle of the road, he pushes through a circle of weeping women and children to reach the body. A tarp is thrown over the girl, but a trickle of bright red blood leaks in a thin line in the dust. Her father, dressed in a lightweight thoub, clenches his fists, yells at the Marine.
Azizi leans in toward the man to make his own words heard against the din of voices raised around the accident scene.
“I am your friend. I am here to translate for you,” he says.
He has learned the tactful nuance necessary in dealing with locals (as well as officers,) and the gruff directness to win the respect of enlisted men. His words carry power. He communicates with village chiefs, Iraqi police and even has a few connections with the fringe of the insurgency.
“Does he know the kid ran into the street?” the Lieutenant asks, the underarms of his crisp uniform stained with sweat.
Azizi nods and turns back to the father whose loud words spit out like buckshot. The father bends down and lifts the tarp, extending his arm, palm upright, fingers spread in an accusative gesture. See? See what they have done?
The girl is about six years old with dark curls nestled around a small, dirty face. She might be sleeping, a frown frozen on her forehead. Azizi glances at the Lieutenant who looks away. A trio of women in abayahs push forward, keening behind their veils. One is likely the mother, but her identity is not discernible in this frenzy of grief.
Azizi keeps his voice steady. “They say the soldiers threw candy bars. She ran into the road too soon. The father demands reparations.”
The Lieutenant chews his lower lip. “Of course he does.” He sighs and pushes his helmet back. “Okay, get all the details for my report. Tell him we’ll be back after we get it approved.”
Azizi lowers his head to the father again, translating. The father squints, his face a mask of suspicion.
“They will come back,” Azizi assures him. “Trust me.”
Fragments of dreams return to Azizi as he sits outside his tent and dips his long fingers into a basin of water. His eyelids are heavy with sleep and the fine grit of Iraqi sand. The sun is already hot on his neck. From behind the Officer’s Quonset hut, he can hear the new unit of American soldiers completing roll call. Kaiser. Miller. Johnson. The names barked by the sergeant spray the morning air like gravel. This would be the unit that arrived yesterday. Fresh faced white boys from Wisconsin, with shorn hair, ready for action.
Since the truck accident, he has been dreaming about his little sister, Zala. He hasn’t had more than a passing thought of her for years. Azizi bends his face to the basin and splashes. Zala couldn’t have been more than ten when he left Egypt. Dark and fast-footed, she used to grab his book and run, forcing him to chase and play with her. He, being so serious, so studious, ignored her too often, nearly ten years her senior. The only daughter of a gruff father and many dour brothers, he thought of her as the sunshine of the family. Cheerful, the outgoing one. When he thought of her at all.
For a moment he sees a vision of his mother. Some said he resembles her, thin and delicate boned. He pictures her at the window of their high-rise Cairo apartment, staring down at the river. She always watched the feluccas float down the Nile, her pointed chin lowered in that submissive way she had of gazing out at the world. He cannot remember her voice. It would have been soft and low. Azizi feels a pang of longing for home. The River, always in his head, always in his dreams.
The ancient gods of Egypt traveled the Nile in barques. In Azizi’s dream, Zala steps into one of these boats and floats down the river, night after night. She is unconcerned, and doesn’t seem aware of the dangers lurking in the water. It is said that the souls of the dead travel by barques, transported to the afterlife. Azizi awakes sweating, while the river, like the undercurrent of his dark thoughts, flows on.
He has forgotten the soft whisper of a mother and the sweet laughter of a sister. Now he’s among men. Iraq is one loud scream.
“Egypt!” A soldier motions to him from the mess tent. “They’re bringing another witness in. Come on in and get some coffee first.”
This is Williams, his friend, who has nicknamed him. His strong black face is stern under the already glaring morning sun. A good soldier.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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