Authors: Ben Coes
At a quarter past two in the afternoon, the old man sat and watched the door to the village’s only establishment, a small café and market known as Satrin-ele. As usual around this time, the door opened. Through the door walked a young woman, a village girl who worked at the café. The old man didn’t move. He sat still and watched as the young woman opened the wooden door and stepped out into the sunshine. Her long black hair lay halfway down her back, braided neatly in two thick strands. Her face was lighter than most of the villagers. She was the most unusual, beautiful woman he’d ever seen. In all his years, for all of the young, innocent beauty he had seen walk through the village, never had he seen such a stunning individual as this one. As she shut the door behind her, she glanced over at the old man.
“Hello,” she said to him, smiling.
He tried to move, but could not. He was so old now, the lifting of his hand was such an effort. Still, if she could see, if she could understand, what her small gesture did to him every day, how it made his old heart tingle. Her kindness so gentle, the power of such a small gesture to a decrepit man in his dying days.
A noise startled the old man. The sound of talking came from the other direction, down the dirt road, to the west. He heard loud words, then laughter. Strangers. He turned his head and looked down the road, down the brown gravel to the west. Two faces appeared.
The soldiers were young. On their heads were helmets. He recognized the soft imprint of their Urdu.
They laughed as they walked up the street. In front of each soldier, aimed up the road, were large rifles. The old man had seen different governments come and go, but there was one thing he did know: the Pakistani soldiers were not supposed to be here.
“Miss,” one of the men yelled out as he walked. “Are you closed for the day?”
The young woman, who had just shut the door to the café, looked at the approaching soldiers.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. Her eyes stayed focused on the ground. “We’re shut for the day, officers.”
“Just a sandwich,” one of the soldiers said. He took a step toward the woman. He towered over her. “One sandwich.”
“Do you disobey us, little bitch?”
She stood in silence, a look of fear on her pretty face.
The old man recognized the colors of the Pakistani Army, dark green khaki, red piping. He felt his chest tightening. He knew he was powerless to do anything. Yet, he felt the words arise from somewhere in the back of his throat.
“Leave her alone,” he said, a faint bark that made the soldiers heads turn. “Closed!”
“Shut up, old man,” one of the soldiers laughed. He turned to the woman. “We are hungry. One sandwich from the whore, then we will be gone.”
The brown dog awoke at the words from the soldier. He was a thin mutt, curly tail, brindle coat thick from six winters outdoors in the foothills of the Ladakh Range. The dog stood and began barking. He moved toward the soldiers, his small white teeth forming a vicious smile. The dog barked and ran toward the Pakistani soldiers, who were across the street.
The taller soldier turned. He pulled the trigger on his rifle. A thunder crack echoed in the thin air as a bullet tore into the dog’s small head, quieting the mutt, killing him instantly. Blood spurted along the ecru wall of the hut. The woman let out a small cry, a gasp really, at the violence. The old man glanced slowly around him, his heart tightening in fear.
Yagulung’s dirt road was deserted except for the two soldiers, the girl, and the old man. The young beauty looked at the old man, then at the soldiers, glancing at the nozzle of the Kalashnikov rifle that was aimed at her head.
She nodded in resignation. What she was about to do was against the law, she knew. Yet fear had gripped her bones.
“I’ll be back with two meals,” she said, her soft voice trembling.
The soldiers did not answer.
She walked to the café. She unlatched the door, then went inside.
The old man watched as the two soldiers looked at each other. One of the men whispered something. Then they both smiled. They moved to follow her inside the doorway to the café.
The old man felt fire in his veins. He lifted his right hand, raising it to the small wooden post next to where he sat. He slowly lifted himself up, feeling pain down his left side, in his feet. Such pain, the debilitation of the arthritis, the visiting doctor had told him so many years ago, that would gradually make it so that he could not walk.
But he did walk, slowly now, step by pained step, the bolts of discomfort tearing up through his legs and back.
He walked down the gravel road, in a southerly direction, toward the walnut groves. He tripped and fell at the turn that went down the stone walkway to the water hole. He stopped his skull from striking the ground with his old hands. Blood appeared on both hands, where the skin scraped off like tissue paper, but he raised himself up. He saw the topping green of the leaves. The rainbow headdress of one of the woman of the village. But she was so far away. Looking down, he saw that his feet now bled from the soles, so long had it been since he had moved more than a few feet in one day.
But he kept moving. He walked more than two hundred feet down the rough, rock-strewn path. At the bend near the first grove of walnuts, he saw a young teenage boy. He waved at him.
“You’re bleeding!” the boy said, running to him. “Your nose is bleeding. So is your mouth. What happened?”
“Get them,” the old man whispered, pointing toward the fields with his blood-covered hand.
The boy ran down the line of tall, green stalks. His high-pitched voice, screaming now, wailed across the valley. Soon, the old man could see someone approaching, Aquil-eh, his great-great-nephew, then others behind.
“No!” screamed Aquil-eh as he sprinted up the stalk line. “What is it? Who has done this to you?”
Aquil-eh made it to the old man, then grabbed him, lifting him in his arms and laying him on the ground.
The old man shook his head.
“Leave me,” the old man whispered. “Arra. She’s in trouble.”
By now nearly a dozen farmers stood behind Aquil-eh. A large man with a beard and mustache stepped forward, his eyes bulging. His name was Tok. At the words from the old man, he pushed the others aside and sprinted in a crazed dash up the path toward the village.
The fields emptied as the farmers poured into the pathway. One of the men rang a small iron bell at the beginning of the steppe. At this hour, that would bring the others, the yak herders as well, knowing that the bell meant that something was wrong.
Tok ran up the crooked gravel path, his arms flailing at his sides. Soon he rounded the steppe shift and was on the village road. The others, now more than two dozen, followed, running in a frenzy. Dust was thrown up by the tumult of footsteps.
Across from the small café, the men ran past the dead dog, lying now in a pool of its own blood. Tok reached the door to the café, followed by the throng.
Everyone in the small village of Yagulung knew Arra. Many were related to her. Tok, the large man who now grabbed the latch to the wooden door, was her father.
He pulled the door open. To the left, a young Pakistani soldier, helmet on the table in front of him, calmly ate a plate of corn mash. On the ground, the other soldier was on top of Arra, raping her.
Tok reached the marauder, slamming a hard fist down atop his head. He knocked the soldier off of his daughter, knocked him down to the dirt floor, then set upon him. Tok, despite being a peasant farmer, was a brick shithouse of a man, his arms strong from decades of hard labor in the fields. He set on the soldier and began to hit him furiously, pounding away at his head from above.
Arra covered herself, running into the back room.
The other Pakistani soldier barked out at the gathering horde of villagers, but it was no use. Another man, carrying a large rock, stood above the soldier and raised the rock above his head.
” the other Pakistani soldier yelled again. He fired the Kalashnikov. The rifle cracked. A slug tore through the man’s chest as he held the rock, knocking him off his feet and backwards. Blood splattered in a red gob across the wall of the café. The villager careened into a small wooden table near the iron stove, dead instantly, blood everywhere.
But if the shot was intended to still the farmers now crowded into the small café, it did just the opposite. Another peasant, who had also armed himself with a rock, hurled it at the Kalashnikov-wielding soldier. The stone struck him in the head, at the top of his right cheekbone, hard enough to knock him backwards. Two other farmers leapt at the soldier and wrestled him to the ground. They were soon pounding viciously at the soldier.
Within minutes, the faces of the Pakistani soldiers would not have been recognizable by even their own mothers. The villagers unleashed themselves upon the soldiers in a fury, hitting and kicking their corpses long after they were dead.
Eventually, from the back room, the young woman, Arra, appeared. Tears covered her cheeks as she stepped into the ruined room. Blood was everywhere. The villagers swarmed like locusts. Men she’d grown up with, her father, brothers, uncles, friends; they hovered over the soldiers they’d just killed, their hands covered in blood.
” she implored. She looked at her father, who knelt on the ground over one of the dead soldiers. His fists were coated in blood.
The room fell silent. Finally, from the back of the small café, a voice interrupted the silence.
“Pakistan will wonder where their patrol has disappeared to,” an elderly man said. “They will come for their soldiers.”
“We must go to Indian Northern Command,” another villager said. “Before it’s too late.”
THE WHITE HOUSE
The two seven-foot-long chesterfield sofas had been custom-made in England. They were identical leather sofas that faced each other and were each big enough to accommodate three people comfortably. The light tan sofas were manufactured by a company called George Smith and cost $65,000 apiece, an expense covered by a fund set up three administrations ago to pay for renovations and various projects around the White House. President Allaire’s wife, Reagan, had selected them herself. She did not live to see the finished product, but as with everything she did, there was understated perfection and beauty to them.
This morning, and every morning at 7:15
, each sofa had three individuals on them, members of the president’s national security team, here for the daily briefing of security flash points around the world. The briefing was run by Jessica Tanzer, the national security advisor. Also present were Bill Winter, the director of the FBI; Harry Black, the secretary of defense; John Nova, secretary of Homeland Security; Hector Calibrisi, director of the CIA; Piper Redgrave, director of the National Security Agency; and Jeffrey Elm, director of National Intelligence.
In the opening at the end of the sofas, a pair of light blue Federal wing chairs held two more individuals, Retired Admiral Tim Lindsay, the U.S. secretary of state, and President Rob Allaire, who on this morning seemed temporarily distracted by the snow that fell in thick white flakes outside the glass-paned French doors that led to the Rose Garden, just outside the Oval Office. The president stared at the endless panes of glass as the snow drifted down, his thoughts temporarily leaving the room as he looked into the distance. Everyone knew the president had stopped paying attention. Everyone knew why too. All eight attendees of the briefing understood that when a man loses his wife to cancer, at such a young age, it’s going to tear you away, even from a discussion as critical as this.
As usual these past few weeks, it was the youngest member of the president’s national security directorate, the only person in the room who had never been married, Jessica Tanzer, who brought the president back around.
“Mr. President,” said Jessica. “We’re almost done here. I’d like to discuss Canada, Pakistan, and Iran. These are the only open points left.”
President Allaire turned from the window. A smile was on his face. Not the kind of smile that a man has when he is happy. Rather, it was the smile of someone who is among friends, when he knows that they know something is wrong, when he knows they know, furthermore, that he needs their help, support, friendship, and they give it to him, in this case by remaining silent as he drifts away from arguably the most important meeting anywhere on earth, taking a moment to think about his dead wife.
“Yes, Jess,” said the president, returning. “Canada. Let’s get to Canada, eh. What have those crazy bastards done now?”
The room erupted in laughter as the president leaned forward to pick up his coffee cup.
“Keep it brief,” said Jessica, looking at John Nova, the secretary of Homeland Security. “We need to spend some time on Islamabad this morning.”
“Will do,” said Nova. “This is a quick update. As everyone knows, we completed the border protocol last week. Intercountry penetration tests; random, urban-rural, scenario-based. The Canadians failed virtually everything. They managed to flag some altered passports in Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, but that was it. Frankly, if Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda didn’t hate the cold so much we’d be in serious trouble. Anyway, we’re dealing with that.”
“How?” asked the president. “We’ve spent how much money on this? It’s unacceptable.”
“Last night, just after midnight, we picked up a minivan carrying two Kenyans in Newport, Vermont,” continued Nova. “They had clear passports but one of them popped the TSDB. He turned out to be ex-Gitmo. The other’s unknown.”
“We pushed out a cross-border alert,” said Bill Winter, the director of the FBI.
“Is it an operation?” asked the president. “What are we doing about it?”
“We need to do some work, Mr. President,” said Winter. “The Canadians reluctantly agreed to raise the border threat to red.”
“Why was he at Guantánamo?” asked Lindsay.