THE 56TH MAN
By J. Clayton Rogers
All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, except for brief excerpts for the purpose of review or quotation, without permission in writing from the author.
Baghdad, March 27, 2003
The storm receded in the distance, as all storms did. The boy was protected, even coddled. He did not comprehend that this storm, like all the others over the last week, was unseasonal. But he knew few things this thunderous ended abruptly. They faded off, as though the events themselves were aware of their majesty and were reluctant to end the proceedings. Like his father's wrath, which tended to decline into dark mutterings. There was no specific end to his anger; only when a tentative smile flickered across his stern face did the boy know that sweet reason was finally breaking through, however slowly.
But his father was not here now, nor his big brother. They had both been wearing uniforms when they left, leaving him and the middle brother and their mother to huddle in the basement while the storm broke overhead. The biggest storm the boy had ever experienced, big enough to shudder their bones and draw low cries of fear from their compressed lips. It would have been reassuring if his father had been with them. The boy would not have even minded if his father had cried out with the rest of them--though such a reaction was unlikely.
But now the storm was receding and the boy grew fidgety. He tried to pull away from his mother, who kept him in place with a strong hand.
"Qasim," she commanded her middle son. "Go up and see. And be careful!"
The younger boy fumed as his brother went upstairs. He was more unwilling than unable to understand why he should not take charge of his own destiny.
"Ummi," he complained, squirming.
His mother’s grip tightened. "Be still!" She hearkened to her middle son‘s footsteps overhead. Her mind had become a listening post, her dread a trembling sentry.
The boy hated the cramped basement, so full of family treasures that there was scarcely room for the three of them. Was that why his father and eldest brother had left? Because they would not have been able to squeeze themselves between the antique vases and statuary that they had moved downstairs throughout the previous week? And what was in those crates over in the corner? They had been unloaded from army trucks and carried here by soldiers who had brushed aside his parents' protests with curious indifference. Other men in uniform were highly deferential to the boy's father. But not these. This lack of respect bothered the youngest son. The soldiers laughed idiotically when he openly snubbed them. After they left, the boy was threatened with severe punishment if he went near the crates.
And now they were not ten feet away from him.
The boy stopped fidgeting. "Ummi, I don’t hear--"
The door at the top of the stairs.
"You can come up, now," Qasim called to them. "They’re gone, for now."
Still holding his hand, the boy's mother rose, lifting him to his feet, and led him up.
"Aoothoo billahi meen ash-shaytan ar-rajeem," the boy's mother murmured. The boy was startled. She was asking for Allah's protection against the accursed Satan. Not typical language in this household.
The boy was intrigued by glass strewn across the front room. Where had it come from? Ah...the picture window. Smashed to smithereens! If he had done that...kicked his ball the wrong way while playing in the yard...he would have feared for his very life. But there was no one here to punish. It seemed to have exploded all by itself, on its very own. How could such a thing happen?
"That's the only damage, Subhan Allah," said Qasim. "We're very lucky."
"Lucky!" his mother scoffed. "This is punishment. No one else has a window like this, where everyone can see in. Lucky!" She paused, looking lost as she stared at the vacant window. "It's your father's...he never went to the mosque...mocked the imam's...he was never a believer...he never bowed his head... Astaghfirullah. Astaghfirullah. Astaghfirullah..."
I ask Allah forgiveness. This was something you said when you feared going to Jahannam, Hell. And an especially horrible fate awaited unbelievers, who would not be rescued from their torments on Judgment Day: Qiyamat.
She seemed to the boy to be saying that, one way or another, they would all spend eternity eating Zaqqum thorns, and they had Baba to blame for it. Were things really that bad? Wanting to judge this gloomy assessment for himself, the boy strained towards the back door. Certainly, his mother would not mind if he went out that way, with a high wall and locked gate for protection. But she held onto him. He considered the practicality of a tantrum. After all, his father wasn't here.
"Get your father on the phone!"
"The phones aren't working," Qasim reasoned with his mother. The boy watched his brother's Adam's apple shuttle up and down his throat as he confronted an adversary far more tenacious than the manmade storms.
"He has a radio, doesn't he? Call him!"
Qasim walked across the broken glass to a small charger on a side table.
"The power's been off. It may not be charged. The enemy is jamming--"
The middle son took the radio out of its cradle and tested the transmission button. There was a burst of static, then a smooth electric sound. He pressed the button again and spoke. He released the button. A moment later a man's voice came on. It didn't sound like the boy's father, but it was fuzzy. Hard to say. In her excitement, the boy's mother let go of him and raced across the room.
"Careful!" Qasim cautioned his mother. "Careful! It's not a toy!"
The middle son assumed the authority of an adult as he explained to his mother how to operate the radio. She stopped her frantic efforts to grab it out of his hand and listened with a show of patience, as though heeding a grown man.
The boy skipped out the back door. He was a man, too. Independent. He hopped down the steps and stopped, listening.
The walled garden seemed undisturbed by the storm--except for some unripe fruit that had fallen off the tamarind tree that spread its shade over the far corner. The boy's mother would not be pleased by that. He had once clambered up a ladder and picked some of the fruit too early in the year. His intent was to be helpful, but his mother had berated him for the waste. The fruit was useless until it dangled in long, plump strands.
Beyond the wall pillars of smoke rose in all directions. The outside world had been churned into noisy chaos. Shouting, cries of horror, pain and astonishment. The boy thought he recognized some of the voices. Could these be his neighbors? He could not say for certain. There was a high pitch in their tone that carried the voices just beyond familiarity. And there were screams. Who could be screaming? It was confusing. The fruit had incontinently fallen, but everything else in the garden was judiciously serene. The boy felt safe, as though snuggled in a nest.
He went to the gate and peered through the bars. People were running back and forth, blindly breaking through thick feathers of smoke. They were throwing up their hands or shaking their fists at the sky. Was the sky the enemy? Had the sky broken the picture window? The boy glanced up. The air directly above the garden showed only a faint trace of smoke. But the smell was strong. He looked out again. Further up the street the haze was impenetrable. A man emerged suddenly out of the smoke, like a genie popping out of his bottle. He rubbed his eyes, then gazed about numbly, as if waking from a long nap.
The boy saw nothing aimless about the people dashing back and forth in the street. They were vibrant, and in his small lexicon of life vibrancy spelt purpose. Even moaning, like the woman who stumbled and fell to the curb, was a kind of decisiveness. She was doing something...even if he could not begin to understand what it was.
Backing away from the gate, the boy stopped midway up the path of slate flagstones and surveyed the garden. Wasn't there something he could do? Some way that he could be useful?
The opportunity was under his nose. Of course! He would pick up the fallen tamarind fruit. That would certainly please his father and mother. Even when ripe, they never ate it. His father bemoaned the annual mess and the insects the rotting fruit attracted after it had fallen to the ground. Planted long ago by the previous owner of the house, the tree was intended to provide shade, not sustenance. The tamarind fruit the boy's family ate came from India, in a variety of forms. When his mother stormed at him last year for picking unripe buds, she must have been more concerned about the height of the ladder than the loss of foodstuff.
Dragging a reed basket out of the flowerbed, he set to work. As he gathered the fruit, he noticed some branches that had broken loose. Most of them were small, yet still too large for the basket. How should he deal with them? Pile them next to the path, perhaps, so that the gardener could scoop them up for disposal? That seemed an excellent solution. The boy was sure his father would approve.
But after several minutes spent dragging branches across the yard the true magnitude of the job revealed itself to him. There was more here than he had realized. And some of the branches were much heavier than he'd anticipated. He abandoned the pile at the base of the patio steps and returned to his original task. Let the gardener deal with the branches. The fruit was much smaller and easier to handle.
And yet, after several minutes of bending and standing, it struck him this chore was just as tiresome as dragging tree branches. He'd never known the unripened fruit to fall in such abundance. What could have caused it? He raised his eyes to the tamarind limbs overhead. The tree looked shaggy, weather-beaten. Well, that only made sense after a storm. Especially after a storm that could shatter a picture window into a thousand fragments.
There was something stuck in the lowest fork of the tree. It looked like string or tape. Walking around to the other side, between the wall and the tree, he could make out a knob-like thing, brightly colored. Somebody's toy had been tossed by the storm from who knew where, until it had fetched up here. From what he could judge, the knob was about the size of his fist. The boy glanced about for the gardener's ladder, then paused. The last time he had dragged the ladder against the tree his mother had come roaring out like a dragon in a fairytale. It would be best not to draw attention.
He searched the garden and found a plastic crate behind the mulch pile. The bottom was latticed. He had seen the gardener use it to sift out stones and roots before casting soil and mulch on the flowerbed. It was strong, but light. Carrying it over to the tree, the boy upended the crate and planted it on the garden side of the tree. He would catch hold of the tape and drag the knobby thing down by the tail.
The tape was about six inches long and flapped temptingly against the tree as the boy stood on the crate and stretched up.
Just out of reach.
The boy sighed, looked down for a moment, then raised his head, held out his right arm as far as it would go, and gave a little jump.
Instead of being frustrated, he was egged on by failure. He even found it amusing to miss, and began to laugh so hard that it robbed his legs of strength. His jumps failed by an inch, then several inches. He even fell off the crate once, still laughing.
Eventually, though, the knob and tape took on the aspect of an adversary. Not an enemy, but a prize to be sought and won. His father was a stout believer in excellence. The boy had already learned that goals were not frivolous. Once your mind was set on something, you had to see it through--triumphantly. He had to get the knob. His father would be so proud.
He heard his mother calling for him. She would make him come back inside the house, and all he would have to show for his bad behavior would be a pile of branches and a reed basket half-full of unripe fruit. Perhaps she would forgive the boy if he came back with something valuable. And the only thing that looked valuable to him at the moment was the knob in the tree. He leapt again. The tips of his fingers brushed the tape.
His mother was on the back steps.
"What is that?" she cried out. "Get away from it! No! No!"
He turned and saw her racing down. The boy could not recall ever seeing her run, whether in a dress or in the slacks she was wearing now. It seemed comical--until she reached the bottom of the steps, turned past the well-trimmed bushes that ran along the base of the raised patio, and tripped on the unseen pile of branches he had so helpfully piled up along the path.
She cried out in pain as she fell, cried out again when the boy turned away from her. "No! Get away! No!"
He was more frightened than ever. How could he explain his actions without showing their cause? He jumped again, missed again. Then he heard his mother's footsteps. She had freed herself of the branches and was running toward him.
"Yes! See? It's a game! It's a prize!"
Desperation lent him strength. He jumped once more--and his fingers closed on the tape. He held on with all his might as he dropped back on the crate, pulling the tape and the knob after it. The knob got stuck, but now the boy had the tape firmly in hand.
"See! A prize!"
His mother had almost reached him when he gave the tape a violent yank.
There was an intense flash.
And then the game was suddenly and horribly over.